It’s the first game of the grapefruit league season, so to speak—the Center for American Progress’ annual May confab, where many of the expected contenders for the next Democratic presidential nomination come to show their stuff. Some Third World-ish traffic—I sat on one single block of Independence Avenue for about 40 minutes—denied me the privilege of seeing Sherrod Brown (who I doubt is running anyway), Amy Klobuchar (who probably is but who isn’t generating the buzz she was a year ago), and Julian Castro (who… is, I guess?). But I saw enough of the biggies—Kirsten Gillibrand, Cory Booker, Bernie Sanders, and Elizabeth Warren—to get the picture.
So here’s my observation. I heard a lot of words from that stage, the usual Democratic buzz words, and they’re all good words. The event showcased some young talent (I was impressed by environmental activist Mustafa Ali) and gave a few somewhat more familiar faces a chance to shine (New York Mayor Bill de Blasio was surprisingly effective, spending the bulk of his 20 minutes talking about crime reduction, which was an interesting thing for a liberal to emphasize to a roomful of liberals, stressing that in his New York, cops are now known to give citizens their email addresses and cell phone numbers, “because there’s a different reality, a different focus, a different bond between police and community.”)
I heard many interesting things. But one word I didn’t hear much at all surprised me. “Trump.”
I sat there, about an hour in, realizing: This is just a huge difference these days between Democrats and Republicans. I thought back to the similar conservative gatherings I’d covered over the years. The annual CPAC conference mostly, although that’s not quite fair because it goes on for days and is much larger than this CAP event. But other smaller ones, too.
At their gatherings, conservatives hardly do anything except mock liberals. Well, that and throw out red-meat applause lines, about bombing Iran into the Iron Age or whatever. But every other sentence at a conservative confab is Hillary this, Obama that. And it gives the thing some zest. People applaud, they scream, they laugh, they chant; it’s an orgiastic experience these days, a conservative political conference.
A Democratic one, by contrast, is a college colloquium. Elizabeth Warren was the keynoter, speaking on the need to repair our democracy; she was fine, all her proposals were laudable, and unlike all the others she actually did jab at Trump a couple times (“men like Trump only wind up in power when democracies are decayed,” she said). But she moved on pretty quickly and didn’t stray much from her subject, which was not her main wheelhouse of economic justice issues.
The lunch keynoter was Booker. He had the right idea, thematically. The core of his talk was that we as a nation simply aren’t investing in ourselves and our future anymore, which I think has the potential to resonate strongly with moderate voters. “The things we used to do to built out this nation,” he said. “It’s like we built this house, and we trashed it.” But he doesn’t quite have the inspiring words yet, and he was kind of jargony. He used “intensivity” twice.
Which was twice more than he used “Trump.” “I was taught at an early age, don’t curse the darkness,” he said. “Light a candle.” No—curse the darkness! There’s a lot of it out there, and the people in that room (high rollers and other liberal insiders) are damn well freaked out about it. Curse it! At least make one cutting joke about it!
Instead, nothing. Even Sanders didn’t say anything about Trump. He was billed as speaking about criminal justice, which he totally ignored, and just gave his usual spiel, which now includes the curiosity-piquing formulation—he clearly likes it, as he repeated it—that three Americans (he did not name them, interestingly) own more wealth than the 160 million Americans who constitute the bottom half of the income graph. Gillibrand focused her remarks on women: “The next chapter of the women’s movement is being written right now,” which I thought was a decent line; at least it acknowledged history. It’s the first time I’ve seen her speak in person. I didn’t have the sense that her self-confidence, which of course needs to be overwhelming to the point of an obsession in a presidential candidate, was there yet.
It was billed as an “ideas festival,” so maybe the idea, so to speak, was to accentuate the positive and not make it too down-and-dirty political. Maybe that’s fine. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying Democrats should be just like Republicans. The Republicans have zero ideas, if you don’t consider turning a blind eye to the daily offenses of a con man and grifter an idea. They have nothing to offer the country intellectually. They’re little more these days than a slot machine for their donors, now with the added disgrace of allowing Dear Leader to skim his take off the top.
The Democrats have ideas, and they should be true to their DNA. But surely they can do that and get in a few jabs. God knows, liberals need some laughs at Trump’s expense. And they need some anger, too. Democrats will always err in the direction of being less confrontational than Republicans; think back, if you’re old enough, to John Kerry ordering no direct denunciations of George W. Bush from the floor of the 2004 convention. And yes, whoever becomes the candidate will need a positive message.
But Trump is liberals’ daily reality. Democratic voters will nominate the person who combines that positive message with a frank assessment of the grim truth--and who demonstrates that he or she can stand up to the bully.