On March 8, the Center for American Progress, the preeminent Democratic-aligned think tank in Washington, D.C., announced the Ideas Conference, loosely modeled after the Conservative Political Action Conference. The idea, CAP President Neera Tanden told Politico at the time, was to attempt something that often seems impossible in the Donald Trump era: think about and discuss issues that were not wholly related to our attention-grabbing president. Just four days before CAP’s announcement, Trump had accused former President Barack Obama of a “Nixon/Watergate” conspiracy to bug Trump Tower—precisely the type of wild, news-dominating provocation that can eat up the national conversation for days, even weeks.
“It’s obviously critical that we provide a positive alternative of how we’re going to address the country’s challenges,” Tanden told Politico.
Still, the Ideas Conference will not solely be about developing progressive alternatives during the Trump administration. Its very existence is also an implicit recognition that Democrats could have done a better job furnishing that alternative during the 2016 election. “I don’t think the recent challenges we had in the election were just message problems,” Tanden told the New Republic. “We have had ideas challenges. People who haven’t gone to college have had a real struggle for the past 40 years and we need better answers for them.”
This is actually CAP’s third Ideas Conference, though its first in the Trump era. Even though it’s oriented toward the future, it is also haunted by the recent past, particularly the most devastating election for Democrats in recent memory. In addition to keynote addresses, the conference will feature panels on economic policy, national security, the resistance, and civil rights and democracy—all of which have become especially critical over the past four months.
A number of participants are people who are considered to be 2020 presidential contenders: Senators Kirsten Gilibrand, Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, Cory Booker, and Chris Murphy will all address the conference, as will Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti. Montana Governor Steve Bullock, who won a state Trump won by 20 points, will also address the conference, as will Obama’s National Security Advisor Susan Rice, who has been accused of several offenses by the sitting president.
“We should keep in mind that we’re in month four of the Trump administration,” Tanden said about the shadow Trump will cast on the conference. “It’s reasonable for people to be focused on his actions because they’re such an assault on vulnerable people, on progressive values, on other Americans. There is a lot to criticize. But our expectation is that people will provide an alternative vision and that our speakers, whether they’re senators or governors or even a mayor, will provide a positive alternative as well.”
No one who has already run for president was invited to speak at the conference, underscoring its goal of highlighting progressive rising stars. “Our focus is really on trying to highlight people who other people don’t see every day,” Tanden said. “People who are fighting and have positive ideas about how the country can move forward.”
Unlike CPAC, the Ideas Conference will be much more focused—it has only one stage and lasts for only one day, unlike CPAC, which goes on for four. Like CPAC, the Ideas Conference aims to bring together grassroots and established organizations—Tanden highlighted Indivisible, Swing Left, Town Hall Project, Digital Democracy, Democracy Lab, and Our Revolution, as well as Planned Parenthood and the ACLU—with political leaders. But the more modest scope also means, however, that the grassroots groups won’t have the kind of prominence that they have at CPAC. Its panel on the resistance features Indivisible’s Leah Greenberg, civil rights activist DeRay Mckesson, Daily Kos founder Markos Moulitsas, and immigration activist and DREAMer Astrid Silva, but the majority of the other talks are more dominated by politicians.
Asked about the influence of the grassroots, Tanden highlighted the resistance panel and a training session CAP will be hosting for groups and activists attending the conference. But she also stressed that the Ideas Conference is trying to fill a leadership void on the progressive side. “We wanted to have a mix” of politicians and grassroots leaders, Tanden said. “We really hear the deep demand for leaders and we definitely wanted to showcase them. We wanted to highlight the resistance. You’ll feel that throughout the day. People are anxious for leaders to step up right now.”
But the ideas that drive politics rarely come from politicians themselves. This means that the Ideas Conference will be useful in reflecting the status quo of progressive thinking. That it’s also a talent show for up-and-coming progressives will give voters an opportunity to see who the party will be focusing on in three years, if not necessarily what they’ll be working on. That said, CAP did release a “Marshall Plan for America,” which proposed a job guarantee, shortly before the Ideas Conference began.
The Ideas Conference’s tighter focus will also mean that it should be less of a circus than CPAC, which is better known for its controversial guests and flamboyant speakers than for its ideas. Asked about what differentiates the Ideas Conference from CPAC, Tanden joked, “Unlike CPAC we are not going to have any supporters of pedophilia!” That’s a reference to Milo Yiannopoulos, whose CPAC keynote was canceled after it emerged that he had once defended pedophilia.
“And number two, at CPAC they spend most of their time beating up on liberals saying how liberals are terrible and I don’t think anyone in the group tomorrow will say ‘conservatives are all assholes,’” Tanden added. “One of the issues with progressives is that actually providing answers on how to solve the country’s problems is how to best showcase yourself, whatever your ambitions may be four years from now.”
More than anything, Tanden stresses that the Ideas Conference will be about, well, ideas. Many of the politicians in attendance may be beginning to jockey for position in 2020, but at the conference they’ll have to talk about their vision for the future of the country. “We expect all of our speakers to bring substantive ideas to solve challenges like the fact that people who haven’t gone to college haven’t had a raise in 15 or 40 years, depending on how you measure it,” Tanden said. “Or the challenge of climate. Or the new assault on the civil rights of whole swathes of people. We see this as a real opportunity to talk not just about what Trump is doing but also how progressives can solve the country’s problems.”