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

Evan Halper, Tribune Washington Bureau on

Published in News & Features

WASHINGTON -- 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.

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 Donald 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."

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