MANHATTAN BEACH, Calif. — Progressive Democrats are beginning to confront an unintended consequence of their own success: Dilution of the brand.
So many Democratic presidential prospects are now claiming the progressive mantle in advance of the 2020 primaries that liberal leaders are trying to institute a measure of ideological quality control, designed to ensure the party ends up with a nominee who meets their exacting standards.
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Leaders of the Congressional Progressive Caucus are discussing policy platforms that could serve as a litmus test for presidential contenders. Progressive donors, meanwhile, are plotting steps — ranging from closer engagement with campaigns to ultimatums tied to fundraising — to ensure that Medicare for All, debt-free college and a non-militaristic foreign policy, among other causes, remain at the center of the upcoming campaign. In an effort to winnow the burgeoning field, progressive advocacy groups are beginning to poll supporters in the hopes of elevating candidates who gain the imprimatur of the left.
“You don’t just get to say that you’re progressive,” Rep. Pramila Jayapal, co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, told progressive donors at a private conference here this week, a portion of which was opened exclusively to POLITICO.
Jayapal, a Washington Democrat, called the 2020 election a chance to “leverage our power.” But she called it critical “that we have some very clear guidelines about what it means to be progressive.”
For progressive Democrats, the 2020 primary carries all the markings of a watershed election. In a party that was once hesitant to fully embrace its left flank — particularly in presidential elections — the rise of progressive populism has manifested in top-tier candidates, several of whom believe the time is ripe to take their unalloyed liberal message to a national audience.
One sign of the new times: According to research by Elaine Kamarck and Alexander Podkul at The Brookings Institution, nearly 44 percent of House primary candidates this year identified themselves as progressives, up from about 29 percent in 2016.
In the presidential election that year, supporters of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) — a backbench senator who rose to progressive icon status — were running from behind. But now, just two years after Sanders was defeated by a more centrist Democrat, Hillary Clinton, self-described progressive Democrats occupy the upper rungs of the 2020 field — potentially including Sanders, but also Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) and Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-Texas), among others.
Elbowing past one other in recent months, such top-tier Democrats have staked out increasingly liberal positions on immigration, criminal justice, tax policy and campaign finance — positions beyond where Barack Obama was willing to go to in 2008.
“We’re sort of in this really bizarre window where, for a number of reasons, many of the leading … candidates are sort of tripping over themselves to claim a progressive mantle,” said K. Sabeel Rahman, president of the left-leaning think tank Demos. “And we have to make sure that that progressive mantle means something really progressive. And that means we should set the table, and we should set that table now.”
The donor gathering in the Los Angeles area, organized by the progressive donor network Way to Win, served as a reminder of the growing influence of left-leaning donors and activists in a party long dominated by more centrist money and ideas. Way to Win steered some $22 million to political efforts in the 2018 elections, and its supporters’ aspirations were reflected in the prayer candles on hand at the conference featuring the images of three progressive champions: Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.), Rep.-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
Yet as the progressive movement expands, it has done so with limited definition, leaving progressive leaders to fret about more moderate Democrats — both in Congress and in the presidential race — claiming the label without supporting the cause.
“Not that we have to have 100 percent of people with us on 100 percent of votes,” Jayapal, a Washington Democrat, told POLITICO of her growing caucus. “We want to make sure that there is room for people to reflect the differences in their district. But at the same time, if you really are a progressive, then we don’t want you to be voting against progressive positions 30 percent of the time, much less 80 percent of the time.”
She said, “We’re figuring out exactly what that looks like, but we want to be protective of what it means to be a progressive, because I think if we don’t, we erode people’s trust in us as progressive leaders.”
Speaking to donors and activists here, Jayapal encouraged the crowd to push their representatives and 2020 candidates to endorse “bold platforms,” including one on immigration that she said she hopes to release soon. Other progressive Democrats are approaching the unusually large primary field as an opportunity to influence candidates’ ideology from within their campaigns.
With a limited supply of staffers for presidential contenders, said Becky Bond, executive director of Real Justice PAC, which works to elect reform-minded prosecutors, “there’s just not enough hats to go around.” Bond, who served as a senior adviser to Sanders’ campaign in 2016, said that “movement leaders and donors should really consider going into that vacuum, joining a presidential campaign early, and you can actually bend these campaigns towards the agenda that you really care about.”
For the greater number of donors who remain on the outside, activists last week discussed a range of possible demands that they could place on presidential candidates, from requiring them to share supporter lists with down-ticket candidates to requiring candidates to spend time with communities of color and working families.
“You’re in a position to actually make some demands,” Bond said.
In an early effort to identify and coalesce support around a progressive Democrat, the progressive advocacy groups MoveOn and Democracy for America recently opened their first online polls ahead of the 2020 election.
But the influence progressives will hold over the 2020 primary field remains unclear. There are questions within the party about just how far left the party nominee can be and still remain viable in a general election. Moderate Democrats are also organizing, and former Vice President Joe Biden, a centrist Democrat, remains at the top of most presidential polls.
The Democratic National Committee, a traditional funding arm in presidential elections, is hosting a major donor conference in Washington this week, including Democrats from across the ideological spectrum.
But even relatively moderate Democrats recognize the appeal of the progressive arm and the shifting balance of power within the party. Ed Rendell, a former governor of Pennsylvania and DNC chairman, said that if he were not 74, “I would run and I would say, ‘Look, I’m progressive on A, B, C, D, E, F, G. But on talking about things that can’t happen … talking about things we can never get through the Congress, I’m not going to talk about those things. I’m going to talk about things we can get done.”
He said, “I think the American public is slightly left of center right now … they’re not going to pass wacky things, and we’re not going to say crazy things just to appeal to the base.”
To defeat President Donald Trump in the general election, he said, “Someone’s got to talk sense.”
One of the goals of Way to Win is to flatten traditional fundraising structures, funneling money to local groups more closely engaged in campaigns. Leah Hunt-Hendrix, one of the group’s co-founders, said the organization is not attached to the term “progressive” as much as it is “attached to racial and economic justice, to addressing climate change, to making sure everyone has access to health care and doesn’t go into debt because they’re trying to get a college education.”
Still, she said, the progressive label is an important “signal to donors.”
And as the movement grows, said Jenifer Fernandez-Ancona, another co-founder, “We feel that it is very important for us and the political movements that we’re building and funding to define what we mean by progressive, to more clearly define our principles.”