Prospective Democratic presidential candidates put their ideas on audition

Cory Booker. Sherrod Brown. Kirsten Gillibrand. Bernie Sanders. Elizabeth Warren. The former secretary of housing and urban development Julián Castro. And Mayor Bill de Blasio of New York. 

All luminaries in the Democratic Party, all on the progressive side of the spectrum. And all potential presidential candidates who were road-testing their pitches on Tuesday at the Center for American Progress’ Ideas Conference in Washington. 

Since its founding in 2003, the center has been seen as thoroughly establishment. Its founding president, John D. Podesta, was President Bill Clinton’s chief of staff and Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign chairman, and its current president, Neera Tanden, is also a Clinton loyalist. 

But like some Democrats, the center has shifted leftward lately, for example by advocating a jobs guarantee, a nominally left-wing proposal that several prominent Democrats have embraced. 

While presidential ambitions provided the subtext for the gathering, a few outward themes emerged: 

— Donald Who? 

President Donald Trump was discussed, of course, especially in a panel on “Democracy and the Rule of Law” featuring Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, Rep. Ted Lieu of California and the former acting attorney general Sally Q. Yates. 

But in contrast to last year’s conference — when Trump’s recent firing of the former FBI director James B. Comey dominated the conversation — speakers seemed focused less on opposing the president and more on espousing affirmative policy proposals. 

This was perhaps most conspicuous in Booker’s keynote address, which did not mention the president but lamented what Booker said was the federal government’s failure to invest in research, infrastructure and education. That failure, he said, had stifled the paths of upward mobility that previous generations enjoyed. 

“Obviously there’s a lot of interest in fighting Trump and the Trump agenda,” Tanden said in an interview, “but I think people are also motivated by what’s a positive agenda about how to solve problems for the country. We have to get out of this polarized loop we’re in.” 

— Sanders vs. Warren 

Warren, the forthright liberal from Massachusetts, and Sanders, a self-proclaimed socialist from Vermont who is not formally a Democrat, would generate sizable and passionate followings should either decide to run for president. But their speeches Tuesday indicated that if both were to run, the result might be awkward because of the similarity of their appeals. 

Both senators crafted structural critiques of government and society. Fixing systemic flaws in federal policy and the social fabric, both argued, is essential if the Democrats hope to achieve goals like universal health care, immigration reform and a fairer criminal justice system. 

They were strikingly parallel about this. “But there is one issue out there which is so significant and so pervasive that unless we successfully confront it, it will be impossible for us to succeed on any of these other important issues,” Sanders said. “Most of these ideas won’t go anywhere until we deal with the defining crisis of this time,” Warren said.  

For Sanders, the problem could be summed in one clunky but pungent phrase: “The oligarchy in this country, whose greed is insatiable,” Sanders said, “is destroying Lincoln’s vision of America, is destroying our vision of America, and is moving us toward a government of the few, by the few and for the few.” 

For Warren, the obstacle is the American electoral system. “Nearly 3 million more people voted for Hillary Clinton than Donald Trump, but Trump took the presidency,” she said, adding that there was something wrong with a process that, by some estimates, would require Democrats to win the overall vote in November by as much as 8 percentage points to assume control of the House of Representatives by a single seat. 

Both senators insisted that these were related problems. Sanders emphasized that wealth inequality translates to political inequality. “We have super PACs funded by billionaires competing with other super PACs funded by billionaires to determine congressional representation,” he said. 

For Warren, a distorted democratic system is the result of the maldistribution of wealth. “People show up to the polls to kick the bums out,” she said, “only to find out no matter how many times they vote for change, too often it feels like Washington stays the same, because too often the bums who really run the show, the billionaires and CEOs and high-powered D.C. lobbyists, they aren’t even on the ballot.”  

Each speech presented a coherent and compelling theory of everything that could attract the allegiance of many Democratic primary voters. Taken together, they raised the question of how these two darlings of the left will sufficiently differentiate themselves from each other. 

— Class and Race 

The debate over whether Trump’s surprise 2016 victory was attributable more to economic jitters or to social and racial anxiety can at times seem academic. But left-leaning adversaries spend so much time and ink on it for a reason: Answering correctly could be the difference between defeating the president in 2020, and not. 

On Tuesday, the judgment rendered by multiple potential candidates was that it was both. Improving the lives of the working class and appealing to white voters who deserted the party (while not giving ground on commitments to racial equality and immigration that are bedrocks of Democratic orthodoxy) are, many suggested, two birds properly killed by the same stone. 

“If we’re going to be a progressive movement, it’s about civil rights and workers’ rights, and it’s also about raising wages,” said Brown, the Ohio senator, who is often held up as the kind of politician — white, Midwestern, skeptical of free trade — who could win back Trump voters in states like Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin that tipped the Electoral College to Trump. 

“Regardless of race,” Brown added. 

Booker, the New Jersey senator and former mayor of Newark, said that he had traveled the country to learn about these voters (and read “Hillbilly Elegy,” J.D. Vance’s best-selling memoir about being poor and white in Appalachia) only to find that “these folks have so much in common with folks that live in my neighborhood.” 

“We in this country have a common pain, but we are lacking a sense of common purpose,” he said. Adopting “big ideas” and making commensurately large investments would cure what ails both southern Ohio and northern New Jersey, he suggested.  

Castro, the former Cabinet official who also served as mayor of San Antonio, noted in his speech that Michael Brown, a black man whose killing by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014 was a touchstone for a national conversation about race and policing, had reportedly been days from beginning a program at a trade college when he was shot. 

“The needs of human beings are much more similar than they are different,” Castro said in an interview. He added, “The frame I’m using is people’s needs, and it’s broader than just economic or social.”

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