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Democrats eyeing 2020 test their pitches at progressive conference

By Nicole Sganga, Ed O'Keefe and Caitlin Conant

President Trump is enjoying a slight bump in his approval ratings. The economy continues to grow and unemployment rates are at their lowest levels in more than a decade. The president is making bold moves in foreign policy – ripping up the Iran nuclear deal while engaging North Korea in denuclearization talks and moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem – and polling suggests most Americans don't seem to mind.

So what are Democrats to do? The midterm elections are less than six months away, and the party remains focused on retaking at least one chamber of Congress and eating into the GOP's dominance in state capitals. Several Democrats are also eyeing the 2020 presidential elections and making early moves to position themselves for what's expected to be a crowded race.

On Tuesday, at least 10 potential presidential candidates – many of whom face reelection to their day jobs before then – gathered in Washington for the annual Center for American Progress Ideas Conference, a live laboratory to test-run ideas and politically palatable soundbites.

The ideological divide that defined the 2016 primary between the more moderate Hillary Clinton and progressive Bernie Sanders still haunts the party, as it attempts to articulate what it stands for before the 2018 midterm elections -- and before 2020. While some midterm candidates have been calling for Mr. Trump's impeachment, that was not the case today. 

Rather than focusing on anti-Trump rhetoric, most of the speakers pitched policy proposals to move the party forward. Their policy prescriptions were far from uniform, though. While all of the potential 2020 hopefuls embraced progressive values, they each hold a different opinion of what embodies those values right now. To that end, they highlighted a variety of topics, including women's rights, pot legalization, economic justice and climate change.

We attended the conference, and here's a breakdown of what we heard and observed.

Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt.

Last year, on the heels of his 2016 presidential bid, Sanders was noticeably missing from the Center for American Progress' annual ritual. The outspoken Vermont senator appeared Tuesday to address criminal justice, managing to tout his stalwart issues of corporate greed, economic inequality and the next generation.

Though Sanders never strays too far from the political spotlight, his address evoked memories of his campaign. This time, though, his words were addressed to President Trump, not to the former business magnate and Republican candidate. "Together – black, whites, Latino, Native American, Asian American, women and men, gay and straight, young and old - we must not allow Donald Trump or anyone else to divide us up," Sanders demanded. "Because when we stand together, as one people, united, fighting for a progressive agenda there is nothing, nothing, nothing that we cannot accomplish."

Sander's former campaign manager Jeff Weaver said Wednesday on MSNBC that Sanders may consider a presidential reboot run, "if he believes he's the best person to do that." The senator has spent recent days stumping in the South and testing out his message to predominantly black audiences.

With 2020 looming, the former presidential candidate wasted no time cautioning voters of the high stakes in future elections – and the price of not casting a ballot. "We must end the disgrace of having one of the lowest voter turnouts of any major country on earth," he warned. "Please do not forget because if you do, we will pay the price for that.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass.

Closing out Tuesday's conference, Warren did not sugarcoat her party's midterm prospects. "The 2018 election will be a massive uphill climb," the Massachusetts lawmaker stated. "And while we'd rather talk about great ideas, we can't climb that hill by ignoring the millions of Americans who are angry and scared about the damage this president and this Republican party have done to our democracy. We can't ignore it, and we shouldn't want to ignore it."

And while many of today's featured speakers avoided rehashing the previous presidential election, Warren underlined Clinton's popular vote total. "In 2016, nearly 3 million more people voted for Hillary Clinton than for Donald Trump, but Trump took the presidency," Warren said. "That is not exactly the sign of a healthy democracy. Democracy hangs on the idea that whoever gets the most votes wins. That's the central starting point and it's worth repeating every single day."

Up for re-election this year, the Massachusetts lawmaker announced that she has donated $175,000 to organizations aimed at redrawing gerrymandered congressional districts. Though the senior senator's millions in campaign funds, town hall tour and "nevertheless, she persisted" rallying cry have all boosted her national profile in the age of Trump, Warren has stated as recently as March that she has no interest in tossing her hat in the presidential ring. Still, her closing pitch had a certain stump-speech familiarity as she reflected on her career: "I am here today, the daughter of a janitor who got to be a public-school teacher, a lawyer and a United States Senator because America invested in kids like me."

Sen. Doug Jones, D-Ala.

Alabama's own recently elected Democratic senator took the stage in a discussion with Slate's Jamelle Bouie. The southern lawmaker joked he had no doubts about the motivation behind his invitation. "I realize I am the closest thing to a unicorn this country has," Jones quipped.

Jones attributes to his success to sticking to "the kitchen table issues" voters care about. He recollected telling campaign staffers during his Senate run, if they ever tried pitching a campaign ad featuring guns or churches, "I'm going to fire your ass." It's a strategy he feels can be replicated in 2018, with proper measure and discipline on the part of the candidate.

On towing the line between his Democratic values and this Republican administration, Jones insisted he will not be a "rubber stamp for the opposition." He added, "I am not going to be a knee jerk, and say, 'No, no, no, this is Donald Trump, and I won't support it.'" In evaluating cabinet nominees, the junior senator notes, that the needle "is always in favor of the president," but he will do an independent review.  

For example, before announcing his endorsement of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Jones says he invited the then-CIA Director into his office. "I had serious concerns about his political statements involving Muslims and the gay community, which in fact was personally disturbing to me and my family." Ultimately, Jones gave him his support. "I felt he was straight with me." The alternative – a State Department with no appointed leader – was not an option. "Tillerson was a disaster," he interjected.

Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J.

With an eye on 2020, the New Jersey firebrand paced the stage to discuss economic justice, sharing anecdotes about his corner bodega and reciting poet Langston Hughes' "Let America Be America" from memory. Booker is no stranger to the national spotlight, and while he's pushed off the prospect of a potential presidential bid until after midterms, the former Newark mayor is looking – and sounding—more and more like a candidate.  

"You want to see the truth of a country," Booker challenged the audience. "Go to the prisons in the nation." He repeatedly argued marijuana is already legal among privileged populations in the United States. "I watched growing up in an affluent neighborhood, how my friends did the same knucklehead stuff that teenagers do in every type of community," Booker said. "Weed is legal in America if you are privileged, if you're at Stanford," the Stanford alumnus noted. "But in my community, you see who we put in prison."

"While nations were building their infrastructure, we were building prisons," Booker continued, drawing a straight line from construction of prisons to increased poverty rates, appealing to the ethics of attendees. "This moral country, the United States, who do we imprison," Booker asked, working up a sweat. "We imprison overwhelmingly the poor."

Rep. Joe Kennedy III, D-Mass.

The 37-year old representative from Massachusetts – the youngest elected official to appear today – took the stage with one message. "Healthcare is a right," he told audience members in a pitch that also spoke to much of America's approximately 27 million uninsured.

Kennedy was quick to draw a political line between Democrats and Republicans. "The Trump administration has made his vision exceedingly clear," he stated. "Healthcare is a privilege to be earned, is a luxury to be bought and a commodity to afford."

The former prosecutor recounted stories of his interactions with clients and constituents alike, highlighting what he called the shame overshadowing America's treatment of the mentally ill. "The three largest institutions providing psychiatric care are jails," Kennedy said. With echoes of Sanders' and Booker's remarks on inequality, Kennedy's mention of cracks within the American criminal justice system underlined Tuesday's most consistent theme among speakers. 

Speculation about the future prospects of the great-nephew of President John F. Kennedy and Sen. Ted Kennedy heightened after the Massachusetts Congressman delivered the Democratic response to Mr. Trump's State of the Union address in January. But while youth is a coveted commodity in a greying Democratic Party, the young Kennedy has repeatedly shot down questions about a 2020 bid.

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio

New York City's Mayor Bill de Blasio - the only current Mayor to speak at today's conference-touted his new 30-day mission to cut back on arrests for marijuana possession. "We don't tolerate them. We don't accept them," the Mayor told CBS News in an interview following his remarks. "Unnecessary arrests are not helping grow faith in the NYPD and are not a good use of officer time," de Blasio added, noting that his administration felt they needed to work their way up to this kind of reform. The mayor's comments mark a departure from his former defense of marijuana arrest tactics and trail a New York Times report detailing racial disparities on marijuana enforcement. 

From behind the podium, the Mayor also applauded a long list of grassroots efforts sweeping the country, tallying the movements that have shaped national conversations over the past year: "What the teachers have done in West Virginia, and Oklahoma, and Arizona, and Kentucky, what the students in Parkland, Florida have done, what the Me Too movement has done, what the Black Lives Matter movement has done, the elections in Virginia for the House of delegates, the elections in Alabama for U.S. Senate. This all happened simultaneously." 

In a time often defined by the Trump agenda and those who oppose it, the progressive Democrat actively rejects resistance talking points. "We tried that in 2016. It was all about what's wrong with Donald Trump," de Blasio shrugged. "That's not speaking to people's everyday lives." 

Instead, the New York City mayor embraced a more optimistic tone. "We are living in a time of miracles. We are living in a time we could not imagine," he exclaimed. "We hold the keys. It is about us being bold and relentless."

Gov. Jay Inslee, Washington

Inslee, a second-term governor, took the stage to discuss an issue often divorced from the reality of day-to-day politics: climate change. According to Inslee, environmental protection policy – often stalled and even mocked within the Trump White House – cannot be stopped on the state level.

"Donald Trump cannot stop us states—governors—from creating a clean energy future." The urgent task of fighting back, argued Evergreen state lawmaker, is evident to American people suffering the consequences of natural disaster. "Climate change will no longer be on the back burner," Inslee stated. "They have watched the hurricane – they have seen the forest fire."

Inslee nodded along with fellow panelists, Tom Steyer, president and founder of NextGen America and senior vice president of Climate, Environmental Justice & Community Revitalization Mustafa Santiago Ali, who advocated for economic equality in environmental protection policy and solutions. In order to achieve success, Inslee said, economic equality and the fight against climate change must go hand in hand, "so we don't get into a schism between the haves and have-nots in an economy that is already unequal."

Asked about California's decision Wednesday to require that all new homes have solar panels, Inslee interjected, "Washington has to figures out a way for everyone to do that."

Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio

The two-term senator is the only Democrat holding statewide office in the Buckeye State, and he faces reelection this year in a state that Trump won by roughly 8 points. In the kickoff event at the conference, Brown shared how he plans to focus on a populist economic message during his reelection campaign.

For Brown, it boils down to this: "Are you on the side of Wall Street or are you fighting for the little guy? Whether she works in a diner, whether he works in an office, whether she's punching a time clock, whether he's working at a construction site?"

He added that there is too little focus on the economic success of the middle class and too much discussion of how well Wall Street is doing.

"We don't speak to small-town America, we don't speak to workers. I just think so much of this – from infrastructure to wages, to tax policy … we're not there yet," he said. "We very much can be."

Despite Mr. Trump's popularity in Ohio, Brown said he will call out the president if he believes the White House is working counter to the needs of Ohio voters. Brown said he's especially upset by Trump's decision to help Chinese telecommunications company ZTE.

Over the weekend the president unexpectedly tweeted that he and Chinese President Xi Jinping were "working together" to give ZTE "a way to get back into business, fast," saying too many jobs in China were at stake after the U.S. government cut off access to its American suppliers.

Brown disagreed, saying it's wrong that the president is "fighting for a Chinese company that's broken international laws." He also blasted Mr. Trump for passing up an opportunity during a White House meeting last week to confront General Motors CEO Mary Barra about some of the company's recent jobs cuts "after GM's gotten hundreds of billions of tax cuts. You call out that kind of hypocrisy."

Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn.

The senior senator from the Land of 10,000 Lakes is up for reelection this year, but eagerly seeks to be part of the conversation about 2020.

She joined Rep. Ted Lieu, D-Calif., and former Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates in a panel discussion about democracy and the rule of law. They agreed that President Trump is undermining the work of the Justice Department by frequently speaking out about active criminal investigations on Twitter or by trying to pressure Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

Klobuchar's strongest moment came in response to an audience member who asked how Democrats can try to spark more visceral reactions from voters. She said she's already seen evidence of such reactions in the come-from-behind victories of Democrats Doug Jones in an Alabama U.S. Senate special election and Conor Lamb, who was able to narrowly win in a Pennsylvania congressional district that supported Trump by more than 20 points in 2016.

As she campaigns for reelection, voters are asking about "health care premiums" – not necessarily about the latest Trump scandal, Klobuchar said.

"They're not asking me about Russian bots -- they're asking me about soybean exports," she said, adding later, "All of that doesn't mean that we just ignore this assault on our democracy."

"We're not going to succeed if we spend all our time bemoaning that he's there. He's there. And we have to present an alternative," she added.

Julian Castro

The former secretary of Housing and Urban Development is putting the finishing touches on a book due out this fall, teaching at the University of Texas at Austin – and preparing for a possible 2020 presidential campaign.

Castro told us in a separate interview that he's likely to make a decision about whether to run after November's elections. Until then, he's leading a super PAC that is supporting younger, mostly minority candidates running for governor and Congress across the country.

His brief remarks to the conference focused on a universal message of "meaningful opportunity" for all Americans – a society that supports and rewards hard work, but also bolsters government aid programs.

"The only reason I can stand here is because I worked hard. My family worked hard," he told the crowd.

"We invested in ourselves but America also invested in us. I believe that is when our country has been at its greatest," the secretary said, adding later: "In the United States, we don't have a single person to waste. We need everyone's talent to succeed."

The remarks earned a polite, if tepid response from attendees. But Castro isn't on the ballot this November – he's merely looking to stay involved in the conversation.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y.

The junior senator from the Empire State faces re-election this year. While the Democratic lawmaker is expected to win handily in her deep blue home state of New York, her tougher challenge will lie in a possible presidential bid in 2020, if she decides to run.

The senator from New York has not backed down from taking on Mr. Trump both in political and personal spats. After the president tweeted last year, calling Gillibrand a "lightweight" and "and someone who would come to my office 'begging' for campaign contributions," the legislator fired back. "I will not be silent on this issue, neither will women who stood up to the president yesterday and neither will the millions of women who have been marching."

Gillibrand echoed those sentiments today in a "Women's Power" panel alongside former Planned Parenthood president Cecile Richards, National Women's Law Center president and CEO Fatima Goss Graves, Voto Latino president and CEO María Teresa Kumar and Jennifer Palmieri, the communications director for Hillary Clinton's 2016 campaign.

"A year and a half after our generation's own women's march the grass roots energy is growing, it is not fading," Gillibrand declared. "And women are holding our democracy together in these dangerous times. It is women who are taking their outrage and running for office, volunteering, protesting, resisting and persisting."

Playing to the audience, the senator took direct aim at Republicans, vowing Democrats will work to "take back" the House and Senate. "The reason we don't have a credibly accused pedophile in the U.S. Senate is because black women in Alabama stood up and said no, not in my state," she said, referencing fmr. Alabama GOP Senate candidate Roy Moore, inspiring a round of enthusiastic applause. 

Arthur Jones II contributed to this report.