Pro­gres­sives go­ing rogue for 2018

To bol­ster their elec­tion strat­egy, many are dis­tanc­ing them­selves from the Demo­cratic Party and the high-pro­file prob­lems of the DNC

The Washington Post Sunday - - POLITICS & THE NATION - BY DAVID WEIGEL david.weigel@wash­post.com

at­lanta — When Sen. Eliz­a­beth War­ren (D-Mass.) men­tioned Pres­i­dent Trump dur­ing a Sat­ur­day morn­ing speech, the more than 1,000 ac­tivists at the pro­gres­sive Net­roots Na­tion con­fer­ence booed.

But when she men­tioned a “so­called Demo­cratic strate­gist” who wanted her party to move to the cen­ter, the boos rang even louder.

“Ap­par­ently, the path for­ward is to go back to lock­ing up non­vi­o­lent drug of­fend­ers and rip­ping more holes in our eco­nomic safety net,” War­ren said sar­cas­ti­cally, in a Sat­ur­day morn­ing speech. “We’re not go­ing back to the days when uni­ver­sal health care was some­thing Democrats talked about on the cam­paign trail but were too chicken to fight for af­ter they got elected.”

War­ren’s party, locked out of power in Wash­ing­ton and most of the coun­try, has spent 2017 op­pos­ing Trump while also fight­ing about what it re­ally stands for. Both trends were on dis­play at Net­roots, as hud­dles over how to block Repub­li­can bills al­ter­nated with protests of Democrats who were seen to be be­lit­tling black can­di­dates, LGBT rights or Na­tive Amer­i­cans.

The ev­i­dence from At­lanta sug­gested that Democrats might march into 2017 and 2018 elec­tions still ar­gu­ing about how to win — with­out di­vid­ing the party.

The high-pro­file prob­lems of the Demo­cratic Na­tional Com­mit­tee were part of that dis­cus­sion, but the larger fo­cus was about what pro­gres­sives were build­ing out­side the party, un­tainted by the Demo­cratic brand. Just as the tea party com­ple­mented the work of the Obama-era GOP, pro­gres­sives want to build or­ga­ni­za­tions, na­tional and hy­per­local, to turn out vot­ers who might be turned off by Democrats.

“Ninety per­cent of Amer­i­cans think that the Repub­li­cans put cor­po­ra­tions ahead of Amer­i­can cit­i­zens, and 80 per­cent say that the Demo­cratic Party does,” said Tom Steyer, whose po­lit­i­cal ad­vo­cacy group Nex­tGen Amer­ica had al­ready bud­geted $8 mil­lion for 2018 elec­tion turnout oper­a­tions. “For peo­ple un­der the age of 30, I’ve seen data on how 44 per­cent of them thought there was no dif­fer­ence be­tween Hil­lary Clin­ton and Don­ald Trump on the is­sues. I mean, that's in­sane.”

The 12th an­nual Net­roots Na­tion con­fer­ence, which was the first to im­me­di­ately fol­low a Demo­cratic loss in a pres­i­den­tial elec­tion, re­vealed the scope of what Barack Obama’s White House once deemed “the pro­fes­sional left.” The Work­ing Fam­i­lies Party, which be­gan in New York and grew across the North­east and Mid­west, an­nounced new state chap­ters. Ac­tivists or­ga­nized un­der the In­di­vis­i­ble hand­book, a guide cre­ated by for­mer con­gres­sional staffers with ad­vice on how to pres­sure their bosses, taught short ses­sions on how they or­ga­nized ru­ral cam­paigns — some which lost, all of which would con­tinue into 2018.

MoveOn.org, fresh off or­ga­niz­ing protests to save the Af­ford­able Care Act from re­peal, was pro­mot­ing a “Re­sis­tance Sum­mer” in which thou­sands of ac­tivists would talk to their neigh­bors about pro­gres­sive pol­i­tics. Our Revo­lu­tion, the group founded by Sen. Bernie San­ders (I-Vt.) af­ter his 2016 pres­i­den­tial bid, pro­moted its own “Sum­mer of Progress” — ac­tivists get­ting con­gres­sional Democrats on record be­hind eight left-wing bills de­signed to ease voter regis­tra­tion, cre­ate uni­ver­sal health in­sur­ance, raise the min­i­mum wage to $15, and re­form the crim­i­nal jus­tice sys­tem.

The Democrats who came to At­lanta to meet po­ten­tial sup­port­ers of­ten had more pos­i­tive things to say about the ac­tivists than about their party. An­drew Gil­lum, the mayor of Tallahassee now run­ning for gov­er­nor of Florida, framed his own cam­paign as a chal­lenge to an es­tab­lish­ment that seemed to spe­cial­ize in los­ing elec­tions.

“A lot of peo­ple are hugely sus­pect of the or­ga­nized party, and they ques­tion whether or not the will of the peo­ple will truly be felt with­out the in­flu­ence of party poobahs,” Gil­lum said. “In the past, those lead­ers gal­va­nized, they chose, they cleared the field, and our vot­ers weren’t on the same page as them. The fate we suf­fered was 20 years of Repub­li­can lead­er­ship in Florida.”

The Demo­cratic Na­tional Com­mit­tee it­self had a mi­nor pres­ence at the con­fer­ence.

DNC Vice Chair­man Keith El­li­son, a con­gress­man from Min­nesota who lost a pro­gres­sive-backed bid for chair­man, was on hand to de­fend the party’s 2016 plat­form and its “Bet­ter Deal” eco­nomic poli­cies.

It was not an easy sell. At a Fri­day panel, El­li­son vis­i­bly sighed when one ac­tivist lec­tured him on why she had joined the Green Party af­ter San­ders’s de­feat, and af­ter a Na­tive Amer­i­can ac­tivist said his use of the term “na­tion of im­mi­grants” had been of­fen­sive. El­li­son’s ad­vice was not to de­fend the Democrats but to in­flu­ence them from the grass roots un­til the party changed.

“It’s not moral, and it’s not just, but it’s re­al­ity,” El­li­son said.

The DNC also dis­patched Raffi Kriko­rian, the party’s new chief tech­no­log­i­cal of­fi­cer, who ar­rived this year from Uber and Twit­ter. He told ac­tivists that the DNC’s in­no­va­tions and data would be more avail­able than un­der the old regime. For some, how­ever, the DNC was an af­ter­thought; asked about the DNC’s data op­er­a­tion, Steyer of Nex­tGen laughed and said the or­ga­ni­za­tion had its own, su­pe­rior an­a­lyt­ics for turn­ing out votes.

Can­di­dates from Ge­or­gia and else­where, who had watched their par­ties col­lapse in the fi­nal years of the Obama pres­i­dency, of­ten sounded a lot like Steyer. In a Politico col­umn that ran shortly be­fore the con­fer­ence, for­mer San­ders dig­i­tal fundrais­ing man­ager Michael Whit­ney sug­gested that the DNC faced a donor cri­sis. De­spite bear-hug­ging the “re­sis­tance” move­ment, the DNC had raised just half as much money as the Repub­li­can Na­tional Com­mit­tee in 2017 — $38 mil­lion to $75 mil­lion — and lagged al­most as badly among donors giv­ing less than $200 apiece.

“Repub­li­cans have qui­etly taken a de­ci­sive edge over Democrats when it comes to small-dol­lar fundrais­ing,” wrote Whit­ney.

At Net­roots, there was lit­tle worry about Demo­cratic fundrais­ing, apart from the struc­tural ad­van­tage that wealthy donors earned from the 2010 Cit­i­zens United de­ci­sion.

The met­ric on which they fo­cused: do­na­tions to in­di­vid­ual cam­paigns. Randy Bryce, an iron­worker run­ning against House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.), said that more than 28,000 peo­ple had do­nated to his bid since it be­gan in June. Ge­or­gia state Rep. Stacey Abrams, a can­di­date for gov­er­nor, em­pha­sized the work she had done through the New Ge­or­gia Project, a third-party group, to reg­is­ter vot­ers.

“Be­cause we’ve been un­der Repub­li­can con­trol for so long, we do not have the ro­bust in­fra­struc­ture that other states have,” said Abrams of the Ge­or­gia ef­fort. “The com­pe­ti­tion ex­isted much more acutely when we [Democrats] had more re­sources. We’ll come to­gether; there are much more skir­mishes than ac­tual bat­tles.”

Not all bat­tles were cre­ated equal. There was al­most no dis­cus­sion about the party’s po­ten­tial can­di­dates in the 2020 pres­i­den­tial elec­tion; when War­ren made a ref­er­ence to putting a woman in the Oval Of­fice, the cheers of “Run, War­ren, Run” were scat­tered and brief.

At a panel on what 2017’s spe­cial elec­tions had taught Democrats about the up­com­ing midterms, de­feated Ge­or­gia can­di­date Jon Os­soff re­peat­edly crit­i­cized the “hot take” me­dia cul­ture for sug­gest­ing that ar­gu­ments about pol­icy were hold­ing Democrats back.

“Get off­line and go knock on doors,” Os­soff said. “Democrats are united, no mat­ter what you hear on ca­ble news or in the hot takes … we don’t have to beat our­selves up over the fact that there’s a range of views and strate­gies. Let’s get on with it, and take back the House.”

PHO­TOS BY KEVIN D. LILES FOR THE WASH­ING­TON POST

ABOVE: Sen. Eliz­a­beth War­ren (D-Mass.) speaks Sat­ur­day dur­ing the Net­roots Na­tion con­fer­ence at the Hy­att Re­gency At­lanta. “We’re not go­ing back to the days when uni­ver­sal health care was some­thing Democrats talked about on the cam­paign trail but were too chicken to fight for af­ter they got elected,” she said. BE­LOW: At­tendee Stephanie Hol­land lis­tens as War­ren speaks.

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