In 2020, a shot to re­de­fine the left

DEMOCRATS HIT THE ROAD TO TEST VI­SION At least 25 con­sider run, but ‘no one has a leg up’

The Washington Post Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - BY MICHAEL SCHERER

The fu­ture of the Demo­cratic Party has been book­ing late-night TV gigs, wak­ing up for morn­ing drive-time ra­dio and show­ing up at wa­ter­ing holes in ru­ral coun­ties to try out new ma­te­rial.

Be­fore the start of a 2020 Demo­cratic pres­i­den­tial cam­paign, at least 25 can­di­dates — may­ors, gov­er­nors, en­trepreneurs, mem­bers of the House and Se­nate — have hit the road to work­shop their vi­sion, ex­per­i­ment with catch­phrases and test pol­icy ideas that could keep Pres­i­dent Trump from win­ning a se­cond term.

Many deny that their ac­tions have any­thing to do with a coming pres­i­den­tial run, but they un­mis­tak­ably play off the chords of cam­paigns past, seek­ing a way to break through a po­lit­i­cal maw that has been fo­cused more on the lat­est ac­tions of the pres­i­dent and the coming midterm elec­tions.

“I don’t want to speak to Democrats only,” says Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), who re­cently ap­peared on ABC’s “Jimmy Kim­mel Live” to riff on the Found­ing Fa­thers’ vi­sion of pa­tri­o­tism and love. “I’m talk­ing to us as Amer­i­cans, about how this is a moral mo­ment.”

In front of pol­icy con­fer­ences and cam­paign ral­lies for con­gres­sional can­di­dates, for­mer vice pres­i­dent Joe Bi­den has been

up­dat­ing his own paeans to the middle class, re­peat­ing his the­matic re­frain that “Amer­ica is all about pos­si­bil­i­ties.” Sen. El­iz­a­beth War­ren (D-Mass.) has broad­ened her calls for peo­ple to “fight back,” and Sen. Ka­mala D. Har­ris (D-Calif.) has de­manded that “we must speak truth.”

“This is like tak­ing the play to Topeka and New Haven to see what works be­fore you even get to Broad­way,” said David Ax­el­rod, a for­mer strate­gist for Pres­i­dent Barack Obama who hosts wouldbe can­di­dates for pub­lic fo­rums at the Univer­sity of Chicago. “The sea­son hasn’t opened.”

At stake in the re­hearsals is nothing less than the fu­ture of the Demo­cratic Party, which has yet to con­geal around a pos­i­tive vi­sion. Party lead­ers pri­vately talk about the next two years as a po­ten­tial pivot point for what it means to be a Demo­crat, like the tu­mul­tuous 1968 Demo­cratic con­ven­tion or the busi­ness­friendly re­align­ment that fol­lowed Pres­i­dent Bill Clin­ton’s nom­i­na­tion in 1992.

“The Demo­cratic tra­jec­tory right now is more un­cer­tain than it has been since I started in politics in the ’80s,” said Simon Rosen­berg, a long­time Demo­cratic strate­gist at NDN, a think tank. “And I think no one has a leg up.”

The ques­tions are big ones — of style and pol­icy — that can only be an­swered in the story told by the can­di­date who even­tu­ally cap­tures the party’s imag­i­na­tion.

Some pro­mote a vi­sion of a youth­ful fu­ture, while oth­ers speak of their own wiz­ened ex­pe­ri­ence. Some use the lan­guage of the pri­vate sec­tor, while oth­ers have be­gun to pro­mote guar­an­tee­ing pub­lic-sec­tor jobs for all un­em­ployed Amer­i­cans. Some speak of class as the defin­ing Amer­i­can di­vide, while oth­ers fo­cus first on racial and gen­der in­equal­ity. Some are brawlers ready to take on Trump, while oth­ers pose as heal­ers to call the coun­try back to bet­ter angels.

They have be­gun to grap­ple with the sense that Trump’s pres­ence has erased all of the old rules, even for Democrats, and that the party should con­sider look­ing out­side the stan­dard ros­ter of gov­er­nors and se­na­tors — per­haps to a busi­ness ex­ec­u­tive-en­ter­tainer like Oprah Win­frey, who has so far re­sisted calls for her to run, or a mayor.

“My the­ory of this elec­tion is you are going to ba­si­cally have a swing back,” said Julián Cas­tro, the for­mer mayor of San An­to­nio and sec­re­tary of Hous­ing and Ur­ban De­vel­op­ment, who has been trav­el­ing the coun­try talk­ing about “ex­pand­ing op­por­tu­nity.” “Peo­ple are going to look for some­one who can unite the coun­try in­stead of di­vide it, some­one they can trust.”

Los An­ge­les Mayor Eric Garcetti, who will speak Sun­day at a grad­u­a­tion in the first pri­mary state of New Hamp­shire, has fo­cused on an­other theme, the wis­dom that can be brought to Washington from those work­ing out­side the dys­func­tional city. “At this mo­ment you have lead­er­ship in D.C. that de­fines it­self by di­vid­ing us and sub­tract­ing us,” he says. “In lo­cal com­mu­ni­ties, we still are de­cent peo­ple who are about the politics of ad­di­tion and mul­ti­pli­ca­tion.”

Star­bucks ex­ec­u­tive chair­man Howard Schultz, a busi­ness­man who has long con­sid­ered a pres­i­den­tial run, has re­cently started a per­sonal of­fice as he pulls back from day-to-day con­trol of the com­pany. His pub­lic speeches drift far afield from the cof­fee busi­ness.

“This is not a time for iso­la­tion­ism, for na­tion­al­ism,” he said Thurs­day at the At­lantic Council. “This is not a time to build walls. This is a time to build bridges.”

The po­ten­tial can­di­dates preach both na­tional and party unity, de­cry­ing the “false choices” be­tween ap­peal­ing to white Mid­west­ern vot­ers and the more di­verse and ur­ban Demo­cratic base. But in the next breath, they some­times demon­strate how many dif­fer­ent routes there are to reach that goal of restitch­ing the Demo­cratic coali­tion ripped apart by Trump.

“The econ­omy doesn’t have a good an­swer for peo­ple who haven’t gone to col­lege, and it hasn’t had an an­swer for a long time,” said Cen­ter for Amer­i­can Progress pres­i­dent Neera Tan­den, who will host at least 10 po­ten­tial can­di­dates Tues­day for a pol­icy con­fer­ence. “Trump proved a wrong an­swer beats no an­swer.”

Late last month, Har­ris stopped by the Break­fast Club, one of the big­gest morn­ing shows ur­ban ra­dio, to dis­cuss the im­por­tance of blacks vot­ing in the re­cent vic­tory of Sen. Doug Jones (D-Ala.). “The math is that a white Demo­crat won in the south be­cause of black women,” she said, sim­pli­fy­ing a close elec­tion that was turned by many fac­tors.

A cou­ple weeks ear­lier, Mon­tana Gov. Steve Bul­lock (D) trav­eled the back roads of Iowa, boast­ing that 20 per­cent of his vot­ers in 2016 also marked Trump on the same bal­lot. “I show up, as sim­ple as that is,” he said in an in­ter­view. “I don’t have the lux­ury of going places where peo­ple think ex­actly like me.”

May­ors and gov­er­nors have been talk­ing up their own lib­eral records of in­no­va­tion in the states, aim­ing to con­trast their com­pe­tence to the dys­func­tion of Washington. “We have demon­strated that a pol­icy ecosys­tem of pro­gres­sive eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment works,” said Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, who has been trav­el­ing the coun­try as chair of the Demo­cratic Gov­er­nors As­so­ci­a­tion. “We have blown up the Repub­li­can trickle-down mes­sage of Don­ald Trump.”

Mayor Pete But­tigieg of South Bend, Ind., who is work­ing on a book due out next year, has an­chored his pitch in a broad vi­sion of Democrats as “the party of ev­ery­day life” — a good job, health care and ed­u­ca­tion in­cluded. “We’ve got to re­al­ize that a lot of this has to do with style,” he said. “That should be fairly ob­vi­ous — we have a pres­i­dent who doesn’t even have an ide­ol­ogy, only a style.”

Oth­ers like Colorado Gov. John Hick­en­looper have be­gun to speak about the fail­ures of past ad­min­is­tra­tions, as the party strug­gles to iden­tify an eco­nomic mes­sage in an age of low un­em­ploy­ment, strong mar­ket per­for­mance and con­tin­ued kitchentable in­se­cu­rity.

“I think we also have to not be afraid to look back with an hon­est eye,” he said of the ef­fects of global trade. “What hap­pened in the 1990s with out­sourc­ing was re­ally gov­ern­ment mal­prac­tice. As a coun­try, we didn’t de­liver for our cit­i­zens.”

Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio), who hails from Youngstown, has ar­gued for a fo­cus on the eco­nomic threat of China, while cau­tion­ing against new gov­ern­ment pro­grams that dis­place the pri­vate sec­tor. “We can be hos­tile to mo­nop­o­lies, oli­garchies and con­cen­tra­tions of wealth,” he said. “But we can’t be hos­tile to cap­i­tal­ism.”

Af­ter the 2016 elec­tion, Sen. Bernie San­ders (I-Vt.) an­nounced that he had been “hu­mil­i­ated” that the Demo­cratic Party could not ap­peal to the white work­ing class, “where I came from.”

Since then, he has tried to fo­cus more on heal­ing the rifts that emerged be­tween him and mi­nor­ity com­mu­ni­ties. It has been a some­times rocky road, such as when he awk­wardly de­scribed Obama as a “charis­matic in­di­vid­ual” dur­ing a speech in Mis­sis­sippi on the an­niver­sary of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s as­sas­si­na­tion.

San­ders says he has been learn­ing since the last cam­paign. “The sit­u­a­tions in African Amer­i­can com­mu­ni­ties are ob­vi­ously very dif­fer­ent than they are in Verin mont,” he said. “What I learned was that we have a crim­i­nal jus­tice sys­tem that is not only bro­ken, but is sig­nif­i­cantly racist.”

War­ren has also been reach­ing out to the black com­mu­nity in an ef­fort to stamp out the im­pres­sion, left from the 2016 cam­paign, that the fi­nan­cial reg­u­la­tory is­sues at the core of her life’s work are not a cen­tral cause of mi­nor­ity com­mu­ni­ties.

“I know I haven’t per­son­ally ex­pe­ri­enced the strug­gles of African Amer­i­can fam­i­lies, but I am here to say that no one can ig­nore what is hap­pen­ing in this coun­try,” she said in a re­cent ad­dress to the Rev. Al Sharp­ton’s Na­tional Ac­tion Net­work, which be­gan with a dis­cus­sion of hous­ing pol­icy and ended with her call­ing out, “Can I have an ‘amen’ on that?”

Party lead­ers have also been float­ing a set of new pol­icy ideas, which go be­yond the 2016 prom­ises of ex­panded health-care cov­er­age, tuition re­lief for col­lege stu­dents and more in­fra­struc­ture spend­ing. Booker has in­tro­duced a bill to both le­gal­ize mar­i­juana and ex­punge the records of those with mar­i­juana pos­ses­sion con­vic­tions. Sen. Kirsten Gil­li­brand (D-N.Y.) has put for­ward a bill that would al­low the U.S. Postal Service to take on banking func­tions, in­clud­ing short-term loans to un­der­mine the costly pay­day-loan in­dus­try.

Sev­eral po­ten­tial can­di­dates, in­clud­ing Booker, Gil­li­brand, Har­ris and Sen. Jeff Merkley (DOre.) have signed on to a bill that would cre­ate a pi­lot pro­gram, of­fer­ing guar­an­teed jobs pay­ing at least $15 an hour in 15 high-un­em­ploy­ment com­mu­ni­ties. San­ders has said he is work­ing on his own ver­sion of the same pro­gram.

Oth­ers have charted more moder­ate paths. “I love Bernie, but I’m not Bernie San­ders. I don’t think 500 bil­lion­aires are the rea­son we’re in trou­ble,” Bi­den said in a speech May 8 at the Brook­ings In­sti­tu­tion, in which he pro­posed free com­mu­nity col­lege tuition, lim­its on worker non­com­pete clauses and ef­forts to broaden the ge­o­graphic reach of ven­ture cap­i­tal.

Most of the po­ten­tial can­di­dates, in­clud­ing other out­siders such as en­tre­pre­neur Mark Cuban, have said they will wait un­til af­ter the midterm elec­tions to make any an­nounce­ments about their 2020 plans. “It’s not about Don­ald Trump,” Cuban wrote in an email ex­plain­ing his view of the coming cam­paign. “He is who he is and ev­ery­one knows who he is.”

Oth­ers, such as Hick­en­looper, say they re­ally don’t know if they are ready to put their fam­i­lies through the two-year strain of a cam­paign. For the mo­ment, they still have time to work that out.

“What did St. Teresa say?” Hick­en­looper asked rhetor­i­cally, ref­er­enc­ing a quote of­ten at­trib­uted to the saint. “‘There are more tears shed over an­swered prayers.’ ”


Star­lings fly over the White House on Jan. 22. In the ap­proach­ing race to re­take the Oval Of­fice, the Demo­cratic Party’s fu­ture is also up in the air as lead­ers and po­ten­tial pres­i­den­tial can­di­dates rally be­hind and re­think the vi­sion of what it means...


From left, Sen. Bernie San­ders (I-Vt.), Sen. Ka­mala D. Har­ris (DCalif.) and Star­bucks ex­ec­u­tive chair­man Howard Schultz are among pos­si­ble con­tenders who are test­ing new pol­icy ideas.

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