The Center for American Progress, the Democratic establishment’s premier think tank, gathered luminaries and potential 2020 candidates this week for what it billed as an “ideas conference.” Their goal was to focus “not what could have been,” as CAP Vice President Winnie Stachelberg said, but on “new, fresh, bold, provocative ideas that can move us forward.”
In the basement of Georgetown’s Four Seasons Hotel, the posh watering hole for Washington lobbyists, lawyers, and visiting wealth, the conference was at turns a debate about the future, and a demonstration of the difficulty in talking about a positive agenda when Trump looms over everything.
Virtually every speaker dutifully invoked the theme of the day: Resistance is not enough; Democrats must propose what they are for. Each then proceeded to rail at one Trump folly or another, and called on progressives to join in defending what was achieved over the last eight years.
There was a vigorous competition on who had the best Trump putdown. Instead of the sign on Harry Truman’s desk that read “The buck stops here,” Senator Cory Booker offered, Trump’s should read “The ruble stops here.”
“Do you get the feeling that if Bernie Madoff weren’t in prison,” Elizabeth Warren said, “he’d be in charge of the SEC right now?” Representative Maxine Waters topped them all by calling for Trump’s impeachment: “We don’t have to think impeachment is out of our reach,” she said.
The first sessions of the day on the economy revealed that Bernie Sanders’s agenda is gaining ground among mainstream Democrats. Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti described his success in passing a $15 minimum wage, a large infrastructure program, and tuition-free community college. Senator Jeff Merkley, the sole senator to support Sanders in 2016, indicted the trade and tax policies that give companies incentives to move jobs abroad, and called for major investments in infrastructure, renewable energy, and education. Medicare for All still appeared to be off the table, however, with most speakers focused on defending Obamacare against the Republican assault.
Senator Elizabeth Warren used her presentation to present a broader argument for Democrats. She argued that concentrated money and concentrated power were “corrupting our democracy,” and noted that “Trump did not invent these problems.” On concentrated money, she argued not simply for overturning Citizens United and moving to publicly financed elections but also for taking on the revolving door between Wall Street and giant companies and government, the “bought and paid for policy experts,” and the armies of lobbyists that distort our politics. She also argued for “picking up the anti-trust stick” to break up monopolies and the big banks, and revive competitive markets.
Investor and environmentalist Tom Steyer, one of the Democrats’ billionaire benefactors, provided a clear agenda for addressing catastrophic climate change, as well as savvy advice on the coalition needed to bring reform about. Since Republicans are hopeless and business won’t lead, Steyer called for building a coalition around a green-jobs agenda that offers jobs that pay a decent wage, reaching out to labor, people of color, and businesses that will gain in the transition in a bold plan to rebuild the country.