by Alex Roartyaroarty@mcclatchydc.com
Top Democratic leaders gathered Tuesday to deliver a stark warning: Their party needs to do more than just talk about President Donald Trump.
Judging by their own words at the first major party cattlecall of 2017, that’s no easy task.
A day after a report that the president revealed highly sensitive intelligence from a U.S. ally to Russian leaders, a litany of top Democratic officials and possible 2020 presidential candidates tried to find a balance between denouncing the latest Trump controversy and making time to explain their own vision and agenda. They had assembled in Washington at the “Ideas Conference” hosted by the liberal think-tank Center for American Progress, an event designed to give the leaders a chance to explain how they would rebuild the party.
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, long seen as a potential presidential contender, said the Senate should not approve of a new FBI director until a special prosecutor is appointed to investigate ties between Trump’s campaign and Russian officials, even as she laid out plans for a federally mandated 12 weeks of paid family leave.
Progressive icon Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts called for a Constitutional Amendment that would restrict the influence of money on politics, even as she warned Trump that America would stand up to “autocracy.”
And Sen. Kamala Harris of California – who like Warren and Gillibrand is seen as a potential White House contender – demanded that Republicans “put country over party” and support a special prosecutor, even as she outlined a detailed proposal to end the “War on Drugs.”
Tellingly, all three also emphasized that the Democratic Party needs to make sure it broadens what the party stands for beyond outright opposition to Trump. It was a theme repeated often Tuesday despite the repeated focus on Trump.
“My calling is not to have this party defined by what we’re against or who we’re against,” said Cory Booker, another potential presidential candidate who spoke Tuesday. “We must be defined by the dream of America for all Americans.”
The speeches previewed a challenge Democrats will grappled with from now until the next presidential race, as they try to win over voters who are wary of Trump but skeptical their party can make life better.
On one end, Democrats will face extreme pressure to respond and oppose everything Trump says or does. For a Democratic base that has a visceral hatred for the Republican leader, anything short of that would be politically disastrous.
But many voters, especially moderates in a general election, will want Democrats to show something more.
The Democrats gathered at the Conference said the party must learn to do both.
“With everything going on, we also know that we must multi-task,” said Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif. “We’ve got to keep our eye on what’s happening in Russia and North Korea, and we cannot lose sight of domestic policy either.”
Said Gillibrand: “We also cannot let Donald Trump distract us from our everyday work of fighting for working families.”
Democrats have grown increasingly vocal in their opposition to Trump in recent weeks, even discussing the possibility that impeachment could be possible if Trump is found guilty of obstruction of justice. A president who seven months ago unexpectedly won the presidential race has also been hampered by low approval ratings and a growing sense of dysfunction in the White House.
Related stories from the McClatchy DC
Kamala Harris to Trump: Leave grandma’s marijuana alone
Activists confront Republican lawmakers hundreds of miles from home
Many Democrats also believe that the party likely doesn’t need to offer a vision of its own to succeed in next year’s midterm elections, thinking instead that just opposition to an unpopular president can win over a majority in the House.
They also say the party’s elected officials have a responsibility, beyond politics, to oppose the president.
“Donald Trump represents a kind of core threat to democracy in some fundamental ways, with firing the FBI director or sharing allies’ intelligence with Russians,” said Neera Tanden, president of the Center for American Progress. “These are not minor disputes, they’re big assaults on democratic norms. So public servants needs to step up and protect our democracy.”
But, she said, Democrats will eventually have to offer more.
“We have to be called on to walk and chew gum. As leaders we need to criticize trump but we need to provide the alternative.”
Alex Roarty: 202-383-6173, @Alex_Roarty