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At Center for American Progress, a Tryout for 2020 Ideas

D.C. gathering alternates between liberal goals, Trump reaction

California Sen. Kamala Harris took aim at the administration’s approach to drug policy at Tuesday’s Center for American Progress gathering. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
California Sen. Kamala Harris took aim at the administration’s approach to drug policy at Tuesday’s Center for American Progress gathering. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Potential Democratic presidential candidates took center stage Tuesday for what might prove to be the kickoff of the 2020 campaign, but the popular characterization of the progressive policy confab as a “CPAC for liberals” might have missed the mark.

The Center for American Progress’ 2017 Ideas Conference looked like the kind of muted 2020 cattle call one would expect from a gathering in the ballroom of the Georgetown Four Seasons in Washington. Missing were the raucous crowds that overtake the sprawling gathering at National Harbor for the annual Conservative Political Action Conference.

Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe glad-handed old friends and supporters in the lobby outside the ballroom before an afternoon speech, but there were no swarms of selfie-seeking young people, always present at CPAC’s party-like atmosphere.

While there were more polite golf claps than cheers, there was also more attention to policy than sometimes comes from the CPAC stage, even as President Donald Trump, whose previous appearances at CPAC helped launch his candidacy, remained an overarching presence.

The Trump factor

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, for instance, focused her remarks on her ongoing push for paid family leave legislation, challenging Trump to sign on.

“Year after year, we are shortchanging our workforce, and we are shortchanging our economy,” the New York Democrat said. “It should be a test of whether or not it’s real paid leave.”

But her remarks began with reaction to the reports from Monday about Trump sharing highly classified information with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and the Russian ambassador to the United States, Sergey Kislyak, in the Oval Office.

“Last night’s reporting has taken us to a whole new level of abnormal,” Gillibrand said.

Freshman Sen. Kamala Harris — a rising star within the Democratic Party — focused on the scourge of opioid addiction, directing her criticism at the last week’s announcement by Attorney General Jeff Sessions that the federal government will resume seeking stiff penalties for relatively minor drug offenses.

“Opioids have taken the lives of coal miners struggling with back pain in West Virginia, and the son of a former Republican congressman in Pennsylvania, and a mom who got addicted to pain killers after a C-section in San Francisco,” the former California attorney general said. She also called for decriminalizing marijuana.

“To fight Jeff Sessions and his old-fashioned, discredited, and dangerous approach to drugs, I believe we must embrace what all regions have in common and build coalitions,” Harris said. “I believe we have opportunities in front of us.”

Russia disclosure

Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who gave the lunch keynote, focused as expected on government ethics and conflicts of interest with Trump. But as with many other speakers, the news of the day about the president and the Russians was unavoidable.

“Now is the time to remind Trump that our intelligence secrets are not gossip. And that his personal desire to impress his Russian buddies does not outweigh the safety, security, and lives of Americans and our allies,” the Massachusetts Democrat said.

Other lawmakers on stage included House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, and Sens. Cory Booker of New Jersey, Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and Jeff Merkley or Oregon.

The panel discussion most explicitly about Russia featured the tandem of Rep. Adam B. Schiff of California and Sen. Christopher S. Murphy of Connecticut.

Schiff, the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said he had yet to receive a briefing on what exactly Trump had shared with the Russian officials, but he offered a general response about the threat that could be posed to U.S. security and that of America’s allies by the disclosure.

“I can’t say if these allegations are accurate, but if they are … we immediately have to go into damage mitigation mode, to find out what steps we need to take to minimize any risk to our sources, and if the damage is to our allies, what steps do we need to take to reassure our allies that we treasure the relationship,” Schiff said. “And then I have to hope that someone will counsel the president about just what it means to protect closely held information.”

Schiff was spotted outside the Four Seasons after finishing his conversation with Murphy, speaking on a cell phone, before being approached by a cameraman apparently with the celebrity and gossip media outlet

“‘The Bourne Identity’ is far and away the best,” Schiff replied when asked about his favorite spy movies by the TMZ cameraman as he entered his car.

The House Intelligence panel had scheduled a meeting later in the day with CIA Director Mike Pompeo.

Liberal heroes

McAuliffe wasn’t the only governor to speak at the Center for American Progress event. Montana’s Steve Bullock and North Carolina’s Roy Cooper also made the trip. In introducing Bullock, former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle highlighted Bullock’s 2016 victory in a state carried overwhelmingly by Trump.

Cooper took part in a conversation that focused on his battles with a Republican-led state general assembly, particularly over voter identification laws and restrictions on voter registration.

But the surprise star for the liberal audience, maybe because of the current series of foreign policy and intelligence crises plaguing the Trump administration, was former national security adviser Susan Rice.

“If we cannot find our way to put country over party, and democracy over demagoguery, even in the face of such a dangerous external threat, then we might as well hang up our leadership cleats and resign ourselves to becoming a second-rate power,” Rice said. “That should not be our future. We are so much better than that. At our best, we are still the bright beacon to the world of hope, creativity, justice, and opportunity.”

With current national security adviser Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster offering a rapid-fire defense of Trump’s actions at the White House the same day, the contrast was one that CAP organizers were likely happy to welcome. 

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