Potential 2020 Dems look beyond Trump

Greg Nash

Potential 2020 Democratic presidential candidates used their appearances at a Washington conference Tuesday to slam President Trump as a unique danger to America, seizing on his recent disclosure of highly classified information to Russian officials.

But the potential candidates at the Ideas Conference, hosted by liberal think tank Center for American Progress (CAP), also called for their reeling party to build a progressive platform that includes more than attacks on the president.

“With everything going on, we also know that we must multitask,” said Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), a freshman senator and rising party star. “We need to keep our eye on Russia and North Korea, but we cannot lose sight of domestic policy, either.”

Many of the Democrats wasted no time hitting Trump over reports saying that he risked an Israeli intelligence asset in his meeting with Russian diplomats, as well as his defense of that disclosure.

“If this is true, President Trump’s actions are not only irresponsible but have put lives at risk and undermined our national security,” said Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (N.Y.), who has gained Democratic “resistance” credibility after opposing more Trump nominees than any other senator.

In the wake of Trump’s surprise firing of FBI Director James Comey, nearly all of the speakers called for a special prosecutor to investigate Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election and ties between Moscow and Trump campaign aides.

“Our intelligence secrets are not gossip, and his personal desire to impress his Russian buddies does not outweigh the safety, security and lives of Americans and our allies,” said Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), who’s expected to be a leading presidential primary candidate if she runs.

“No foreign power, and especially not Russia, gets to launch an assault on our democracy without any investigation or any consequences.”

But Warren, whose work on banking regulation and consumer protection has made her a progressive favorite, also emphasized the need for a progressive economic agenda that can connect with American voters.

Many Democrats have argued that after Hillary Clinton’s presidential election defeat, the party spent too much time tarring Trump as unfit to be president and not enough time defining its own message during the campaign, particularly with the working class that left the party in droves last year.

Warren’s fiery lunch keynote blasted the influence of corporations and millionaires that she said “rig the system” in their favor. And she said that the former lobbyists and Wall Street executives who joined Trump’s administration undermine his campaign mantra to “drain the swamp.”

“President Trump hasn’t invented these problems, but boy has he made it worse,” Warren said. “A hundred seventeen days in and the swamp is bigger and deeper and uglier and filled with more corrupt creatures than ever before in history.”

Warren has repeatedly denied rumors about 2020 ambitions, saying she’s focused on her reelection race in 2018. But that hasn’t stopped Trump and his team from treating her like his top opponent. He continues to call out Warren in speeches, while the White House and national Republican Party work together to compile information about Warren and other 2020 potentials.

The CAP conference doubled as an early cattle call for politicians with 2020 buzz — people the group’s president, Neera Tanden, described as a “new generation of progressive leaders.”

Along with Harris, Gillibrand and Warren, the list of potential 2020 Democratic hopefuls at the event included Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, Govs. Steve Bullock (Mont.) and Terry McAuliffe (Va.), and Sens. Chris Murphy (Conn.), Cory Booker (N.J.) and Amy Klobuchar (Minn.). Former Missouri Secretary of State Jason Kander, who has taken on a national profile after an unsuccessful Senate bid in 2016, spoke as well.

Many of the speeches hit the same themes: attacks on Trump and calls for the party to move left on economic populism. But in their first side-by-side event with major party strategists and donors, they also put their personal styles on display.

Klobuchar peppered her question-and-answer session with folksy musings about Minnesota and about her work on the Farm Bill, a piece of legislation far from the minds of the D.C. elite in the room but near to the hearts of Midwestern voters that Democrats want to win back. Klobuchar is running for reelection in 2018 but stoked major speculation about presidential ambitions when she traveled to Iowa, the first stop in the primary circuit.

Harris, who has been fundraising and spending at a furious rate for a freshman senator, leaned into her background as a prosecutor, talking about the human impact of criminal justice reform and opioid addiction. Garcetti, who has reportedly been approached by national donors about a potential bid, said Democrats at the state and local level can turn their regions into laboratories for the nation’s solutions.

Gillibrand centered most of her speech on paid family leave, an issue with bipartisan momentum. Murphy emphasized his service on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to prosecute the case that Trump’s leaky White House hurts international relations. And Booker spoke emotionally about civil rights as one of the few black men ever elected to the Senate. 

All regularly rank on lists of potential presidential candidates.

While none of the politicians entertained the presidential speculation on Tuesday, the implications of having all these Democrats on one stage were clear.

This year wasn’t supposed to feature speculation about the party’s next slate of presidential hopefuls.

Democrats nearly cleared the field for Clinton in 2016, with Democrats sure of her victory up until the night of the election.

Clinton’s surprise loss roiled the party, exposing rifts between its main factions and leaving a power vacuum at the top.

With the party knocked down a few pegs, a host of top donors, activists and strategists at the Washington conference looked to chart a path back to power while giving the parade of potential 2020 candidates space to test the waters.

The party now has to find a way to restore its luster and rebuild its ranks in Washington while also fighting internal battles between its establishment and progressive wings that are still bruised from the primary fight between Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.).

Red-state Democrats are calling on the party to make inroads in less friendly terrain and engage voters nationally in the run-up to the 2018 midterms, with an eye on 2020.

Clinton took heat for spending less time campaigning in Rust Belt states, many of which went red for the first time in decades. Democrats are already heeding that advice, encouraging their base to turn out in this year’s special elections in what had been assumed to be Republican districts.

“If my strategy in Montana was what we followed at the national level, I would have been kicked out a long time ago,” said Bullock, who won reelection in 2016 by several points despite Trump winning Montana by 20 points.

“Democrats need to do a better job of showing up, make an argument, even in a place where people are likely to disagree.”

Tags Amy Klobuchar Bernie Sanders Chris Murphy Elizabeth Warren Hillary Clinton Kirsten Gillibrand

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