The Memo: Elizabeth Warren steals show at 2020 audition

Democratic jockeying for the 2020 presidential race was on full display Tuesday as a host of likely contenders addressed liberal activists in Washington.

It was Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenRising star Abrams advances in Georgia governor race Progressive rise is good news for Sanders, Warren Juan Williams: Trump gives life to the left MORE (D-Mass.) who ultimately won the day with a full-throated assertion of the need for Democrats to hew closely to a base she characterized as “angry and scared” about President TrumpDonald John TrumpCNN's Zucker: Trump 'secretly watching CNN' all day and night GOP candidate behind 'Deportation Bus' loses in gubernatorial bid Penn to Hewitt: Mueller probe born out of ‘hysteria’ MORE’s impact on the nation. 

Warren argued at the Center for American Progress’s (CAP) Ideas Conference that the Democratic Party is “the party of ideas.”

But she added, “The sad truth is, most of these ideas won’t go anywhere unless we deal with the defining crisis of this moment in our history … Democracy is crumbling around us.”

Warren appeared better able to synthesize anti-Trump anger with a more positive policy platform than any other speaker.

Still, there is no denying the tensions that exist beneath the surface of a Democratic Party that has never really moved past the shellshock that followed the 2016 election.

Numerous speakers asserted the need to offer something more than a check on the president ahead of this year’s midterm elections.

“I don’t have time to wallow,” said Sen. Amy KlobucharAmy Jean KlobucharSenate reaches deal on new sexual harassment policy Washington governor to make Iowa debut Senators near deal on sexual harassment policy change MORE (D-Minn.). She faces reelection this year in a state where — in an unpleasant surprise for many liberals — Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonDem targeted by party establishment loses Texas primary Penn to Hewitt: Mueller probe born out of ‘hysteria’ Trump claims a 'spy' on his campaign tried to help 'Crooked Hillary' win MORE eked out a victory by less than 2 percentage points over Trump in 2016. 

“He’s there, and we need to provide an alternative,” Klobuchar added.

“We cannot simply resist,” CAP President and CEO Neera Tanden said. “We need an affirmative vision that serves as an alternative to Trumpism.”

Sen. Sherrod BrownSherrod Campbell BrownPa. health secretary: 'Sustainable funding' needed to attack opioid crisis The Hill's Morning Report — Sponsored by PhRMA — How long can a Trump-DOJ accord survive? Hillicon Valley: Facebook, Google struggle to block terrorist content | Cambridge Analytica declares bankruptcy in US | Company exposed phone location data | Apple starts paying back taxes to Ireland MORE (Ohio), another Democrat up for reelection this year, delivered a polite but pointed rebuke to coastal Democrats whose focus often rests on identity politics.

“Trump won communities in my state that he had no business winning,” Brown said. “I think workers in my state are looking for somebody in elected office to talk about the dignity of work.”

Brown added, “I don’t talk about white workers and black workers and Latino workers. I talk about workers.”

But if Brown’s approach may present a route to winning in the Midwest, it is far from a unanimous view in the party, with other Democrats stressing that racism and gender discrimination contribute to economic inequality.

Tanden told The Hill that the diversity of opinion on display at the gathering was “healthy.” 

“Look, there is a broad spectrum. We have Doug Jones, Bernie SandersBernard (Bernie) SandersTrump claims a 'spy' on his campaign tried to help 'Crooked Hillary' win Rising star Abrams advances in Georgia governor race Webb: Drain the swamp MORE and a lot of people inbetween,” she added, referring to the newly elected senator from Alabama and the independent Vermonter who surprised many observers with the strength of his challenge to Clinton in 2016.

Sanders, who is widely expected to run for president again in 2020, was enthusiastically received, especially in his calls to “dismantle the oligarchy” of “multibillionaires.”

Yet there was a stark distance, at least in tone, between Sanders and other potential 2020 contenders like Sen. Cory BookerCory Anthony BookerProgressive rise is good news for Sanders, Warren Clinton backs Georgia governor hopeful on eve of primary Maybe a Democratic mayor should be president MORE (D-N.J.). 

Booker’s appeal was more overtly couched in a call for “common sense” and working across the aisle — and a faith that data on issues like child poverty and food insecurity would win over voters.

“If we are to be a great nation, we have to start looking at the numbers,” Booker insisted.

Booker’s call to find common ground was couched in cultural terms, too, as he spoke about how he had read “Hillbilly Elegy,” the hit book by J.D. Vance that dwells on the plight of poor, white Americans. 

“Oh my God, these folks have so much in common with folks who live in our neighborhood,” Booker said, referring to people in his own low-income area in Newark, N.J.   

“We have in this country a common pain, but we are lacking a sense of common purpose,” he added.

Whether the more conciliatory Booker approach is what the party wants in the Trump era remains to be seen. 

Trump’s approval rating among Democrats in the Gallup weekly poll has never climbed above 13 percent this year, and it has fallen as low as 5 percent. Vigorous opposition to Trump is the glue that binds the self-proclaimed resistance together.

For Warren, the imperative was for Democrats not to “throw working people under the bus every now and again just so we can show up at some bill signing and brag about what deal-makers we are.”

Beyond the bigger picture, events like Tuesday’s present an opportunity for prospective candidates to try to carve out a niche. Sen. Kirsten
Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) presented herself as a champion of women, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio (D) presented himself as a bold progressive and Warren drew attention to money she had given to state parties.

“Come on folks, we’re Democrats,” Warren said toward the end of her remarks.

But her party is still debating what, precisely, that means.

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump’s presidency.