As Donald Trump’s White House battled another day of controversy, Democrats began their auditions to challenge him.
While the 2020 presidential contest is a political lifetime away, with a midterm election and an unpredictable climate in between, a who’s who of party politicos and potential candidates gathered for an early cattle call in Washington to test drive ideas and rhetoric in front of key activists, thought-leaders and donors.
Senators, governors and local office holders blended fiery criticisms of the president, particularly on reports of his sharing classified information with Russian officials, with policy issues ranging from redistricting to criminal justice reform to voter rights to climate and energy. Speakers implored Democrats to embrace the Donald Trump resistance, but to not let the party be defined by it.
“Our party cannot just be about that,” said New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, closing out the conference sponsored by the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank run by former Clinton advisers. “Trump is a symptom of a problem. He’s not the problem.”
Yet in the short term, at least, Trump’s troubles are center stage. Shortly after the Democrats’ gathering, the New York Times reported a memo written by ex-FBI Director James Comey indicated the president had asked Comey to drop the investigation into former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn. Trump later fired Comey. The story elicited bipartisan criticism and questions.
In a sign of how the anti-Trump sentiment is coursing through the base of the party, Rep. Maxine Waters‘ calls for impeachment earned cheers. “We don’t have to think impeachment is out of our reach,” she said. “We can’t wait that long,” she said of 2020.
Booker was one of several speakers thought to be in the running for the Democratic nomination in 2020. Just 117 days into the Trump administration, more senators than not seem to be weighing a presidential run. Booker joined colleagues Elizabeth Warren, Chris Murphy, Kamala Harris, Kirsten Gillibrand and Amy Klobuchar at the CAP “ideas” conference at the posh Four Seasons hotel in Georgetown. Govs. Terry McAuliffe of Virginia, Steve Bullock of Montana and Roy Cooper of North Carolina were also featured speakers. Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti gave the opening keynote.
Just six months after the most divisive, exhaustive and shocking campaign in memory, Democrats are already ginning up talk of their next chance to take on Trump, embarking on book tours, raising money for the party, endorsing local candidates, cultivating grassroots and digital networks, and making trips to early-voting states.
Klobuchar, a senator from Minnesota, keynoted an event in Iowa a couple of weeks ago. Warren released a new book and has been making the rounds on television programs and at party functions. She was the keynote for the Emily’s List gala earlier this month.
Warren, who delighted in criticizing Trump as a Clinton campaign surrogate in 2016, argued that the president has failed to deliver on economic promises. “The swamp is bigger deeper uglier and filled with more corrupt creatures than ever before in history,” she said.
The leadership vacuum in the party has put a spotlight on a host of party players inside and outside of Washington.
Jason Kander, a former Kansas secretary of state who narrowly lost a Senate race last year, launched a voting rights group that has taken him around the country and made him a feature at Democratic Party events. “It is a level of enthusiasm and activism I’ve never seen in my lifetime,” Kander told RealClearPolitics after his presentation to the conference.
Kander is considered one of the fresher faces in a party with aging leaders. Asked whether he might run for office again, Kander said he might keep an open mind. “Obviously we are very opposed to what Trump is doing,” said Kander, a former Army captain who assembled a firearm while blindfolded in a memorable Senate campaign ad. But “We’ve got to tell people why it is we’re trying to do what we’re trying to do.”
The early days of the Trump administration have helped energize the Democratic Party as it tries to rebuild itself, even if deep challenges remain. But some potential candidates emphasized the lessons of the 2016 election, that opposing Trump without a compelling party message leads to failure.
“The people did not elect me in Virginia to spend all my days attacking the president of the United States,” McAuliffe told RCP. The Virginia governor represents one of the few battlegrounds Clinton won, and he enjoys a high approval rating in a state, while polling shows a majority disapprove of Trump. McAuliffe is term limited, and his impending departure leads to a key election later this year that will serve as an early bellwether for the Democratic Party and the Trump administration.
McAuliffe, a former Democratic National Committee chair and a longtime Clinton family friend, said that while he has been critical of Trump on a variety of key issues, Democrats have to show their own results. “They can’t argue with the economic development,” he said of Virginians.
Looking down the road, McAuliffe has also been focusing his efforts on redistricting—a pet project now of former President Obama and his attorney general, Eric Holder—and getting Democrats elected to state legislatures that draw many congressional districts. “If we don’t win a majority of these, we’re in trouble,” he said of 36 governors’ races that will take place next year.
As for his own ambitions, McAuliffe told RCP he was focused on finishing his term and campaigning for colleagues next year. But afterward, the door is open. “We’ll see,” he said, when asked about a possible 2020 run.
Other speakers offered tough love for the Democratic Party, whose brand has been struggling in rural and Rust Belt areas. Two-term Gov. Steve Bullock of Montana pulled no punches in his criticisms. “It’s about showing up,” he said, alluding to the Clinton campaign’s absence in key states like Wisconsin. National Democrats’ “strategy was all about using data to find people who already agreed with us so we could drag them to the polls,” Bullock said. “Little attention was paid to places that might be difficult to win.” Candidates should be “offering voters a reason to vote for Democrats.”
A competitive special election for an at-large congressional seat in Montana later this month will be another early test for Democrats in the Trump era.