Many of the Senate Democrats at Tuesday’s Center for American Progress Ideas Conference are 2020 presidential contenders and brought to the progressive policy gathering a wide array of political positions, not to mention approaches to their presentations.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who closed the event, focused not so much on individual ideas presented on the stage, but on the nuts-and-bolts importance of winning elections at the state and local level.
The Massachusetts Democrat said, “our democracy itself … is crumbling around us.”
She spoke of a legislative push to combat corruption, including a lifetime prohibition on lobbying for Cabinet secretaries and other top agency officials, as well as members of Congress and the president.
And she encouraged activists to work to elect more state legislators before the next congressional maps are drawn after the 2020 Census.
“I’m sending $175,000 to organizations on the front lines trying to win back our legislatures and fight for fair redistricting,” Warren said. “Democrats believe in a fair fight, and making sure that districts aren’t drawn to cut out one party or the other is a critical first step.”
Former Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, a Vermont independent who caucuses with the Democrats, was among the featured afternoon speakers. His remarks, delivered from behind a lectern, made the case that none of the liberal policy prescriptions on health care or the environment or any other substantive question will happen without turning the tide on money and politics.
Sanders, as he often does, cited with derision the Supreme Court decision in the Citizens United case.
“The oligarchy in this country, whose greed is insatiable, is destroying Lincoln’s vision of America, our vision of America, and is moving us toward a government of the few, by the few, and for the few. And that is a direction we must oppose with every fiber of our being,” Sanders said.
But Klobuchar also brought a message for party activists in attendance who might want to see more Democrats talking about Russian meddling in the 2016 election, potential ties to President Donald Trump, and whatever presidential Twitter fight may be leading headlines that day.
“If that’s all we do is to follow him down every rabbit hole, that’s not how we change the country,” Klobuchar said, seeming to speak for a number of her colleagues who face voters in 2018.
“We have all these incredibly strong women that are up in the Midwest. We could literally lose a third of the women in the Senate if we don’t win this election,” Klobuchar said of a number of Democratic colleagues who face tough races this fall, among them Missouri’s Claire McCaskill and North Dakota’s Heidi Heitkamp. “They have got to focus on what their citizens think and what they want to hear about the economy and their plans for it.”
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Another Midwesterner, Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio, was the first of the Democrats to take the stage in the hotel ballroom, participating in a morning panel discussion with Paul Krugman, a columnist for The New York Times.
Brown said his challenge at home involved showing constituents that even if Trump is talking “a good game” about supporting workers in the industrial Midwest, his policies are not working in their favor.
“I think workers in my state are looking for somebody in elective office to talk about the dignity of work, to talk about whose side are you on, to talk about why work matters, no matter what they do,” Brown said. “Whether she punches a time clock or whether she works in a diner or whether he works in an office or works construction.”
“I don’t hear that enough from elected officials,” he said.
Perhaps no speaker was more focused on those political realities than Alabama Democratic Sen. Doug Jones.
In an interview onstage, Jones joked about the number of invitations he has received to speaking engagements like the one CAP hosted Tuesday.
“I am the closest thing to a unicorn that exists in the country,” Jones said of his status as an elected Democratic senator from the Deep South.
Jones recalled how his campaign goal was to focus on issues Alabama voters would care about around the kitchen table, without resorting to stunts to try to win.
“It takes talking about the very specific issues that people across the country care about on a daily basis,” Jones said.
And even speaking as part of an event program that included numerous Democratic senators who have opposed the vast majority of key Trump nominees, Jones defended his favorable votes for some of the president’s choices.
Citing his support for Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Jones said many of the nominees were generally not people he would have selected himself, but the needle was slightly weighted in favor of the president.
New Jersey Democratic Sen. Cory Booker offered a lunch-hour keynote speech, and a handful of other senators, such as New York Democratic Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, were invited to participate on panel discussions for the full house of liberal leaders and activists.
Sen. Christopher S. Murphy introduced and participated in a discussion on gun violence — which has been a signature issue for the Connecticut Democrat ever since the 2012 tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School — that included Ryan Deitsch, a senior at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.
Murphy got personal in opening that discussion, talking about a conversation about a month ago with his six-year-old-son, who had recently participated in his first active shooter exercise in his kindergarten bathroom.
“What they did was take all 25 children and push them into that bathroom, standing like sardines shoulder to shoulders with their hands tight to their chest, silent for five minutes,“ Murphy said. “Some of the other kids might not have known exactly what they were doing.”
Murphy said the conversation at home was jarring, and it only seemed to strengthen his resolve to fight for new gun laws, as well as against the National Rifle Association.
“I have watched for 20 years as the gun industry and the gun lobby co-opted these ideas of freedom and liberty,” he said, adding that he never saw his younger son with less liberty than when hiding in the classroom bathroom as part of the exercise.