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Democrats vie to impress the party’s elite, and audition for the 2020 presidential race

Democrats vie to impress the party’s elite, and audition for the 2020 presidential race
Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey. (Julio Cortez / Associated Press)

The annual confab for progressives Tuesday might have been mistaken for a daylong seminar to teach rich liberal donors about a middle America that is increasingly incomprehensible to them.

But it was much more than that. It was the beginning of a long audition — for party leaders and for 2020 presidential contenders.

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Some of the biggest names in Democratic politics could be found in the subterranean conference center in downtown Washington, road testing their plans for the party's salvation. The speaking slots at the Center for American Progress' annual Ideas event, watched closely by some of the left's most well-heeled donors and well-connected politicos, were particularly coveted in this time of reinvention for Democrats, when the race to carry the party's mantle and form its message is wide open.

Time at the podium, or waxing intellectual with other panelists on the white leather couch behind it, was sought after, but also fraught this year. Those who took the stage, including New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, billionaire philanthropist Tom Steyer and Massachusetts Sen.Elizabeth Warren, wrestled with the question of how far the left's anger can go to win back the country for Democrats, and how far the party should go in moving its focus to a different message, perhaps an optimistic one. They jockeyed to offer a vision the kingmakers in the audience could embrace.

"Democracy works best when those involved in the fight are not afraid to stand up for what they believe in, and even throw a punch once in a while," Warren said in a fiery closing speech that questioned the logic of shifting focus away from the affronts she said President Trump and the Republicans had made to democracy. "While we would rather talk about great ideas, we can't climb that hill by ignoring … the damage this president and this Republican Congress have done to our democracy."

"A lot of folks say Democrats should not get distracted with that stuff," she said. "Inside baseball, they say. No one cares, they say. I disagree."

Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, an independent, also showed no sign of shifting course. He delivered a signature broadside against the billionaires who he says control the political process and the economy — which arguably included Steyer, a California Democratic activist who was onstage minutes before.

"The oligarchy in this country, whose greed is insatiable, is destroying Lincoln's vision of America, is destroying our vision of America, and is moving us in a direction of the few, by the few, for the few. And that is a direction we must oppose with every fiber of our being."

It was once again clear the far-left flank of the party, which enjoyed unexpected success in the 2016 Democratic primary, is not looking to rewrite its playbook. But others, particularly some of the most ardent backers of Hillary Clinton, were revising their messages. Some seemed further along than others.

"It is a moral moment," Booker said in a keynote address that zagged from the regrettable state of Amtrak to the tattered safety net to the virtues of bipartisanship. "Will we dream about greatness again? We have such talent in this nation, such wealth, but we are keeping so many people on the sidelines."

Booker sought to define himself as the candidate focused on innovation, investment and a new economy that spreads success beyond the clusters of wealth in places like Silicon Valley and Manhattan. He talked of the struggles of his neighbors in the low-income Newark, N.J., neighborhood where he lives when not in Washington.

The representatives from the states where the party so misjudged the electorate in 2016 tried to offer some blunt talk.

Sen. Sherrod Brown, a liberal from Ohio and a fierce ally of organized labor, took a nuanced jab at the identity politics that serve Democrats so well in urban areas, but which Donald Trump used to build resentment in the less diverse regions reeling from the loss of manufacturing and mining jobs.

"If we are going to be a progressive movement that is about human rights and civil rights, it is also about workers' rights and it is about trade unionism, and it is about raising wages and giving [it to] workers regardless of race," Brown said. "I don't talk about black workers and white workers and Latino workers. I talk about workers.…That is the way you sell that message."

He warned against a simplistic view of flyover states that assumes voters are only motivated by jobs in a narrow set of industries.

"We need to talk about work differently," Brown said. "Some people on the coast call my state the Rust Belt and that diminishes who we are and it demeans what we do. Workers in my state are looking for somebody in elected office to talk about the dignity of work, to talk about whose side you are on. I don't hear that enough from elected officials."

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MSNBC's Chris Hayes, a panel moderator, expressed some fascination over the shifting politics of Minnesota, where Democrats lost significant ground in 2016. Its senior senator, Amy Klobuchar, warned that railing against Russian election interference and White House corruption only gets Democrats so far in her state.

"They are not asking me about Russian bots," she said. "They are asking me about soy bean exports." Democrats, she said, can't "spend the whole time bemoaning the fact that [Trump] is there. He is there. And we have to present an alternative."

The crowd looked for answers from Doug Jones, the newly elected senator from the once Republican stronghold of Alabama. He assured them a victory like his can be replicated. But the prescription for it may have been unsatisfying to this audience.

Embracing the standard liberal policies and working with the caucus to undermine Trump are not part of it, he told them. "The thing that I campaigned on and the thing I am doing as a senator was being an independent voice for Alabama and the people of the country," he said. "If he puts forth things in his agenda I believe are good for my state, I am going to support that."

Both California Sen. Kamala Harris, a favorite of party activists, and Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, a possible dark horse presidential contender, were at the event last year and thus did not take the stage this year. But representing a Western vision was Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, a rising star among Democrats who pushed an agenda around clean energy and climate action. He shared the stage with Steyer.

"Any Democrat running anywhere in America needs to make it a central message," Inslee said of climate change. "The American people are with us. They have watched the hurricanes, they have seen the forest fires."

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