(CNN)Democrats at a liberal confab in Washington, DC, on Tuesday mostly ignored the elephant down the street, while those who did mention President Donald Trump warned that addressing him personally — at the expense of pressing economic concerns — could cost the party with voters this year and in 2020.
The party has spent the lion’s share of Trump’s presidency rolling out and road-testing different policy ideas, but in their desire to appear more issue-oriented, leading Democrats have mostly put off deciding the best way for candidates to attack Trump without being sucked into the vortex that he has created and sustained since announcing his upstart 2016 bid nearly three years ago.
The problem is not unique to Democrats. Over a dozen seasoned Republicans tried, in just as many ways or more, to cut down Trump during the 2016 primary and all lost in spectacular fashion. Those worries have been exacerbated during Trump’s presidency by pressure from a sizable chunk of the party base especially eager to back candidates who can match the President’s fire with fire.
But in her speech at a conference organized by the liberal organization Center for American Progress on Tuesday, Sen. Elizabeth Warren — a darling of the progressive left and potential 2020 primary candidate — warned against focusing too directly on the man in the White House and not enough on the circumstances that placed him there.
“This crisis did not begin when Donald Trump took office,” Warren said. “Men like Trump only wind up in power when democracies are already decaying.”
Her nuanced argument balanced Democrats’ desire to speak out about the man who is consuming so much media coverage with the reality that most voters, as they head to the polls this year, want to hear more about issues like health care, wage stagnation and voting rights.
“A lot of folks say that Democrats shouldn’t get distracted by that stuff. Inside baseball, they say. Process issues, they say. No one cares, they say. I disagree,” she said, before deftly pivoting to one of the party’s primary legislative aims — countering the effects of partisan gerrymandering.
“Democrats believe in a fair fight and making sure that districts aren’t drawn to cut out one party or the other is a critical first step,” she said, talking up the work of former Attorney General Eric Holder, who helms a new Democratic organization called the National Democratic Redistricting Committee. “We can do this — and we must do it.”
But other Democrats were blunter in their prescription for how the party should handle Trump as it attempts to regain control of Congress this fall.
“We’re not going to see (continued success) if we spend our whole time bemoaning the fact that he’s there,” Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar said of Trump in the White House. “He’s there. And we have to present an alternative.”
She then turned to the interactions she’s had with voters in 2018, conversations she described as markedly different from the nightly roundtables on cable news programs.
“They are not asking me about Russian bots, OK,” she said while speaking on a panel moderated by MSNBC’s Chris Hayes. “They’re asking me about soybean exports.”
She added: “They don’t want to hear about Donald Trump every single minute.”
Like Klobuchar, Democratic Governors Association head Jay Inslee argued to CNN that Democrats should let the Trump circus play out on its own, without much help from Democrats seeking office.
“I would say that Donald Trump has destroyed his own credibility. He doesn’t need a lot of help from us,” said Inslee, the governor of Washington State. “What we need to do is to fashion, articulate and communicate a positive, optimistic, visionary message of economic growth for everybody in our community. And we’re doing that. That’s what we need to focus on.”
He added: “What you hear in your profession right now is going to be very different from what you hear (from) our candidates.”
Sen. Sherrod Brown, an Ohio Democrat who is up for reelection this fall in a state that Trump won in 2016, made a similar point — to trust voters to make a judgment on Trump without harping on his daily controversies constantly.
“I think workers in my state in many ways know that this president is not on their side, although he has talked a good game,” she said. “And it is my job to show that I am.”
For every Democratic officeholder or activist who addressed the complications that follow Trump, others all but ignored him and focused on the avalanche of new and revived liberal policy ideas that have been bouncing around on Capitol Hill since the President took office.
Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey talked up his federal jobs guarantee proposal. Rep. Joe Kennedy III from Massachusetts beseeched the academics and liberal donors in the room to keep focused on health care policy ideas. Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut, on stage with two young survivors of gun violence, pushed for stricter gun laws.
Sen. Bernie Sanders, in a speech titled “Breaking Up the Oligarchy,” railed against the outsize — and growing — influence of the billionaire class in American politics, spicing up his usual fare with some sharp words on racial inequality in the criminal justice system.
“We need to stop imprisoning people for smoking marijuana and for being poor and start prosecuting the crooks on Wall Street whose greed, recklessness and illegal behavior caused the greatest economic downturn since the Great Depression 10 years ago,” Sanders said, only mentioning Trump a few times, twice in the context of what Republicans are doing on Capitol Hill and never with a focus on the salacious headlines plaguing his administration.
Sanders has been a frequent critic of the media’s focus on Trump’s personal foibles, arguing that they distract from issues that actually matter to voters.
“Too much attention is given to sensational issues like Stormy Daniels, or who Trump fired yesterday, or the latest tweet that he sent out today,” Sanders said at a discussion on racial and economic justice at Duke University in North Carolina last month. “And they are not talking about the broad issues that impact tens of millions of Americans.”
Democrats are well aware of the importance of this debate and the risks faced by the party if they can’t hammer out a coherent and persuasive argument against Trump, personally, and, more to the point, the policies he and Republicans are currently implementing.
At one point in the discussion with Brown, the senator acknowledged that all of the ideas being discussed on stage would remain conversation pieces if Democrats fail again to deliver at the ballot.
“We’ve got to win elections,” he said frankly, “to do all these things.”