North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper speaks at the Center for American Progress Ideas Conference in Washington, D.C. Photo by Aa...

At D.C. conference, Democrats look towards 2020, but can’t get past Trump

“Don’t settle for being pissed off,” Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti told an energetic ballroom of his party’s donor base on Tuesday morning.

“Every day that we’re playing defense, we’re not making progress.”

Democratic and progressive leaders spent Tuesday outlining their vision for the future of the party and the country at the “Ideas Conference,” hosted by the liberal think tank Center for American Progress. And like most conversations in Washington, the talk kept coming back to President Donald Trump.

“Trump promised to drain the swamp,” Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass. said. “117 days in, and the swamp is bigger, deeper, uglier and filled with more corrupt creatures than ever before in history.”

Democratic stars like Sens. Warren, Cory Booker D-N.J., and Kristen Gillibrand D-N.Y. addressed the friendly crowd in this year’s annual conference And while speakers included North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper and Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, the speaker lineup revealed a problem that Democrats face–losses over the past eight years have led to diminished power nearly everywhere but the coasts. Gov. Cooper was the only elected official south of Virginia. Only three speakers were from the Midwest– two, Sen. Amy Klobuchar and Rep. Keith Ellison from the traditionally liberal Minnesota.

In addition to discussions on infrastructure, health care and voter ID laws, the latest news of the president leaking classified information to Russian officials loomed large.

Sen. Gillibrand said she will not vote for a new FBI director until there is a special prosecutor, before pivoting to an impassioned speech on the merits of her legislation on a national paid leave program.

In a conversation moderated by The New York Times’ David Sanger, Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif. and Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn. criticized the President’s handling of classified material and his ad hoc approach to foreign affairs. Rep. Schiff, the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, called for both parties to reject foreign governments meddling in U.S. elections, no matter which party benefits from the weaponized information.

“The fundamental point is how we protect democracy in the future,” he said.

Sen. Warren, a favorite to run in 2020, was interrupted by frequent applause, as she spoke on income inequality and the role of money in politics, linking them to the Russia scandals that have plagued the Trump administration.

“Concentrated money and concentrated power [are] corrupting our democracy,” she said. “It’s becoming dangerously worse with Donald Trump in the White House.”

Freshman Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., criticized Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ memo signaling the return of mandatory minimums and a revamped effort to fight the war on drugs. Harris, the former California Attorney General said the “war on drugs was an abject failure,” and called for the decriminalization of marijuana.

While unified in opposition to Trump, Democrats are still struggling to form a coherent message that appeases both the moderate and progressive wings of their party, whose fault lines were exposed in the 2016 primary. Progressive talking points like Sen. Warren comparing lobbyists to locusts and Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., using the word “impeachment” in the same sentence as “Donald Trump” drew applause, but others were quick to note the vast hurdles that Democrats face in regaining electoral power.

“You can have the greatest ideas in the world, but if you can’t win elections and get in office, then the ideas are worthless,” McAuliffe said.

The wide-ranging topics seemed to touch on everything but one–what exactly went wrong in 2016 that led to a Democratic electoral meltdown in national and state elections and Trump in the White House.

In his closing remarks, Sen. Booker took a more idealistic tone while pushing for progressive policies like universal healthcare.

“We have to be a nation and a people and a party that reignites that conviction that this will be the country of impossible dreams,” Booker said. “That is the essence of the American Dream.”

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