Sanders gets best reception at early 2020 audition

Democratic presidential hopefuls embraced their party’s left flank during a presidential cattle call in the nation’s capital on Wednesday.

More than a thousand energetic attendees gathered at the We the People Summit to hear from some top potential 2020 contenders: Sens. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and Kamala Harris (D-Calif.). But it was Sanders who won the most applause from the crowd of progressive and labor activists.

All of the possible 2020 candidates struck a liberal message, touting the need for universal health care as well as protecting and expanding Social Security and Medicare. But the lawmakers also made calculated decisions about what issues to emphasize as they look to build up their support among the party’s activist base.

{mosads}The energy in the room was palpable throughout the entirety of Sanders’s speech. He received multiple standing ovations, and “Bernie!” cheers broke out when he walked on and off the stage.

Sanders, 76, spent much of address telling attendees about how his 2016 presidential campaign changed the conversation within the Democratic Party. Sanders, who lost in the primary to Hillary Clinton, secured a number of his initiatives in the Democratic Party’s convention platform.

“Many of the ideas that we talked about were thought to be fringe ideas, radical ideas, extremist ideas,” he said of his campaign planks like infrastructure reform, tuition-free public colleges and “Medicare for all,” which has been embraced by many Democratic House candidates in midterm campaigns this year. “Because of your efforts, those ideas are now mainstream American ideas.”

Yet, Sanders didn’t embrace every liberal policy tossed his way on Wednesday. Asked what he would do to rein in Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), Sanders declared the need to protect so-called Dreamers but didn’t go as far as calling to defund ICE — an idea which has gained some traction among more liberal candidates.

When Warren, Sanders’s top competition on the party’s left flank, took the stage, she used her time to hammer the GOP. She said Republicans are leaving workers behind and argued that there’s widespread corruption in the White House, Congress and the Supreme Court. She specifically called out the GOP’s tax overhaul as “evidence of corruption in Congress.”

“We’re going to hose out this cesspool of corruption,” Warren, 68, said to roaring applause. “We’re going to make this government work for the people.”

Warren, who’s been an advocate for consumer protections, hewed closely to her economic message that the middle class is suffering at the expense of corporations and millionaires. She also used her speech to drum up her support for labor unions and their rights to collective bargaining, which played well among the crowd of labor activists and organizers.

Booker, Gillibrand and Harris are all rising stars in the party, but lack the name identification of Warren and Sanders.

The question and answer session was the most revealing part of the summit. Some senators used the questions posed by attendees to make subtle moves meant to endear themselves to progressives.

The 47-year-old Booker, who has previously drawn criticism from progressives for donations he received from pharmaceutical companies and big businesses, sought to make clear that he’d protect the little guy.

He blasted hedge funds and corporations who practice “perverse capitalism” that prioritizes dividends and executive bonuses over workers. He specifically singled out Bain Capital, a shift from the 2012 presidential campaign when he referred to Democratic attacks on the private equity firm — which was co-founded by then-Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney — as “nauseating.”

“I support a lot of legislation and ideas to end these kind of toxic practices, to put workers back in the center of the company’s focus,” Booker said.

Gillibrand, 51, also took the opportunity to take a step further to the left in her economic platform.

When pressed by an organizer from an Indivisible chapter if she supports the financial transaction tax, Gillibrand said she does, attracting applause. Sanders sponsored a bill in 2017 that would impose taxes on specific trading transactions. Supporters of this tax believe it would discourage stock market speculation.

“I think income inequality is the greatest risk we have to our democracy right now,” Gillibrand added.

Meanwhile, Booker, Harris and Gillibrand sought to differentiate themselves from the pack and prove their progressive bona fides.

Booker’s speech struck a pastoral tone. He walked around the stage as he peppered his remarks with evocations of the civil rights movement and impassioned calls for unity.

“If this country hasn’t broken your heart, you don’t love her enough. If you are not deeply disturbed by what is coming, you’ve got to check your own love,” he said.

“Some people call it patriotism; that’s a fine word, but understand patriotism is love of country and you cannot love your country unless you love your fellow countrymen and -women.”

Harris, 53, had a similar message about patriotism. She said there are two kinds of patriots: one who unequivocally “condones” a country’s actions, and “the kind of patriot I believe all of us to be,” one who fights for its ideals.

“Don’t let anybody take our flag. When we march and we shout and we fight, this is a fight that is born out of love of country,” Harris added.

Meanwhile, Gillibrand ran through a laundry list of progressive issues she backs: ending mass incarceration and institutional racism, getting money out of politics, and achieving paid leave, universal pre-K and pay equity.

All of the potential 2020 hopefuls painted a gloomy picture of the economy. While they acknowledged that the economy is improving and the nation’s unemployment rate is down, the senators said middle class families are still suffering and said the situation has been exacerbated by the GOP tax law.

But for a party still licking its wounds from the 2016 elections, they sounded notes of optimism.

“I’m angry, but I’m ready to fight back because I’m an optimist,” Warren said. “I’m here because I believe in democracy, and I believe in fighting back.”