In the battle over ideas in the Democratic party, it’s clear the moderates aren’t getting much quarter. This was on display at the “Ideas Conference” held Tuesday by the Center for American Progress, the central policy and personnel clearinghouse for Democratic administrations. Just before the event, the think tank released “A Marshall Plan for America”—an ambitious jobs guarantee via “a large-scale, permanent program of public employment and infrastructure investment.”
The racially and gender-diverse main speakers ranged from the liberal to the very liberal. Senator Elizabeth Warren gave a strong lunch keynote demanding strong antitrust enforcement to break up concentrated economic power. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand extolled the necessity of paid family leave, Senator Cory Booker demanded universal healthcare, Senator Kamala Harris called for the total decriminalization of marijuana and the election of “progressive prosecutors” nationwide, Representative Keith Ellison called Trump’s voter fraud commission a scam and a “set-up,” and Senator Jeff Merkley demanded a green transformation of the energy economy that would put “every coal electricity-generating plant into a museum by the year 2050.”
Many of these speakers, particularly the ones gifted a “keynote” speaking slot, are widely rumored to be seeking the White House, and the mainstream media portrayed the event as a cattle call for 2020 candidates.
But there was an awkward absence: Senator Bernie Sanders. He was not invited to the “Ideas Conference,” and his exclusion makes clear that while Democrats are converging around a general set of ideological principles, the party still faces some serious coalition-building problems.
CAP president Neera Tanden explained to the Washington Post that “We were trying to emphasize a new generation,” and a CAP spokesperson told the Nation that nobody who ran for president before was invited.
That’s true as far as it goes, but with any scrutiny it feels more like a post-facto justification for not including Sanders. There’s a big difference between Hillary Clinton—now a private citizen with no future electoral plans—and Sanders, a sitting senator who polls as the most popular politician in the country and who has pointedly not ruled out a 2020 presidential campaign. The press materials for the conference proclaimed it would “bring together national leaders of the progressive cause,” and there’s no real way Sanders doesn’t fit that description, or rationally should have been excluded simply because he ran for president last year. (The presence of Susan Rice and Tom Daschle onstage also puts considerable strain on the idea that only new voices were being elevated.)
Attendance was restricted in other ways, too. There was no website for the event, which was held at the swanky Four Seasons hotel, nor a way for anyone to attend unless CAP sent a personal invite. (Though one could pay $1,000 to attend the “Progressive Party” after the conference.) The audience was primarily donors to the think tank, as well as CAP’s professional allies across DC and a whole bunch of media.
This all left the event with a distinctly elite feel, despite the genuinely populist economic agenda that was being promoted. Daily Kos founder and self-appointed “grand-daddy of the resistance” Markos Moulitsas didn’t help matters when he huffed during a panel about “that grassroots Bernie thing” and how it was a detriment to the party.
That’s the real split in the party right now: between the grassroots and the establishment represented at the Four Seasons on Tuesday. It’s less about Bernie versus the Clintonistas, but rather the wide array of socialist activists, community organizers and radical labor groups that existed for quite a while in Democratic party politics, but lined up behind Sanders when he ran for president and are feeling energized and emboldened now.
That movement exists on an entirely parallel track as the professional left in DC. A lot of those groups will be meeting in Chicago in early June for their own version of an ideas conference. Sanders will address “The People’s Summit,” which is being held by the National Nurses United, Progressive Democrats of America, Democratic Socialists of America, the Food & Water Action Fund, Our Revolution and others.