George Soros and other rich liberals who spent tens of millions of dollars trying to elect Hillary Clinton are gathering in Washington for a three-day, closed door meeting to retool the big-money left to fight back against Donald Trump.
The conference, which kicked off Sunday night at Washington’s pricey Mandarin Oriental hotel, is sponsored by the influential Democracy Alliance donor club, and will include appearances by leaders of most leading unions and liberal groups, as well as darlings of the left such as House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi, Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Congressional Progressive Caucus co-chairman Keith Ellison, according to an agenda and other documents obtained by POLITICO.
The meeting is the first major gathering of the institutional left since Trump’s shocking victory over Hillary Clinton in last week’s presidential election, and, if the agenda is any indication, liberals plan full-on trench warfare against Trump from Day One. Some sessions deal with gearing up for 2017 and 2018 elections, while others focus on thwarting President-elect Trump’s 100-day plan, which the agenda calls “a terrifying assault on President Obama’s achievements — and our progressive vision for an equitable and just nation.”
Yet the meeting also comes as many liberals are reassessing their approach to politics — and the role of the Democracy Alliance, or DA, as the club is known in Democratic finance circles. The DA, its donors and beneficiary groups over the last decade have had a major hand in shaping the institutions of the left, including by orienting some of its key organizations around Clinton, and by basing their strategy around the idea that minorities and women constituted a so-called “rising American electorate” that could tip elections to Democrats.
That didn’t happen in the presidential election, where Trump won largely on the strength of his support from working-class whites. Additionally, exit polls suggested that issues like fighting climate change and the role of money in politics — which the DA’s beneficiary groups have used to try to turn out voters — didn’t resonate as much with the voters who carried Trump to victory.
“The DA itself should be called into question,” said one Democratic strategist who has been active in the group and is attending the meeting. “You can make a very good case it’s nothing more than a social club for a handful wealthy white donors and labor union officials to drink wine and read memos, as the Democratic Party burns down around them.”
Another liberal operative who has been active in the DA since its founding rejected the notion that the group — or the left, more generally — needed to completely retool its approach to politics.
“We should not learn the wrong lesson from this election,” said the operative, pointing out that Clinton is on track to win the popular vote and that Trump got fewer votes than the last GOP presidential nominee, Mitt Romney. “We need our people to vote in greater numbers. For that to happen, we need candidates who inspire them to go to the polls on Election Day.”
But Gara LaMarche, the president of the DA, on Sunday evening told donors gathered at the Mandarin for a welcome dinner that some reassessment was in order. According to prepared remarks he provided to POLITICO, he said, “You don’t lose an election you were supposed to win, with so much at stake, without making some big mistakes, in assumptions, strategy and tactics.”
LaMarche added that the reassessment “must take place without recrimination and finger-pointing, whatever frustration and anger some of us feel about our own allies in these efforts,” and he said “It is a process we should not rush, even as we gear up to resist the Trump administration.”
LaMarche emailed the donors last week that the meeting would begin the process of assessing “what steps we will take together to resist the assaults that are coming and take back power, beginning in the states in 2017 and 2018.”
In addition to sessions focusing on protecting Obamacare and other pillars of Obama’s legacy against dismantling by President-elect Trump, the agenda includes panels on rethinking polling and the left’s approach to winning the working-class vote, as well as sessions stressing the importance of channeling cash to state legislative policy battles and races, where Republicans won big victories last week.
Democrats need to invest more in training officials and developing policies in the states, argued Rep. Ellison (D-Minn.) on a Friday afternoon donor conference call, according to someone on the call. The call was organized by a DA-endorsed group called the State Innovation Exchange (or SiX), which Ellison urged the donors to support.
Ellison, who is scheduled to speak on a Monday afternoon panel at the DA meeting on the challenge Democrats face in winning working-class votes, has been a leading liberal voice for a form of economic populism that Trump at times channeled more than Clinton.
As liberals look to rebuild the post-Clinton Democratic Party on a more aggressively liberal bearing, Ellison has emerged as a top candidate to take over the Democratic National Committee, and he figures to be in high demand at the DA meeting. An Ellison spokesman did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Sunday evening. Nor did a Trump spokesman.
Raj Goyle, a New York Democratic activist who previously served in the Kansas state legislature and now sits on SiX’s board, argued that many liberal activists and donors are “disconnected from working class voters’ concerns” because they’re cluster in coastal cities. “And that hurt us this election,” said Goyle, who is involved in the DA, and said its donors would do well to steer more cash to groups on the ground in landlocked states. “Progressive donors and organizations need to immediately correct the lack of investment in state and local strategies.”
The Democracy Alliance was launched after the 2004 election by Soros, the late insurance mogul Peter Lewis, and a handful of fellow Democratic mega-donors who had combined to spend tens of millions trying to boost then-Sen. John Kerry’s ultimately unsuccessful challenge to then-President George W. Bush.
The donors’ goal was to seed a set of advocacy groups and think tanks outside the Democratic Party that could push the party and its politicians to the left while also defending them against attack from the right.
The group requires its members — a group that now numbers more than 100 and includes finance titans like Soros, Tom Steyer and Donald Sussman, as well as major labor unions and liberal foundations — to contribute a total of at least $200,000 a year to recommended groups. Members also pay annual dues of $30,000 to fund the DA staff and its meetings, which include catered meals and entertainment (on Sunday, interested donors were treated to a VIP tour of the recently opened National Museum of African American History and Culture).
Since its inception in 2005, the DA has steered upward of $500 million to a range of groups, including pillars of the political left such as the watchdog group Media Matters, the policy advocacy outfit Center for American Progress and the data firm Catalist — all of which are run by Clinton allies who are expected to send representatives to the DA meeting.
The degree to which those groups will be able to adapt to the post-Clinton Democratic Party is not entirely clear, though some of the key DA donors have given generously to them for years.
That includes Soros, who, after stepping back a bit from campaign-related giving in recent years, had committed or donated $25 million to boosting Clinton and other Democratic candidates and causes in 2016. During the presidential primaries, Soros had argued that Trump and his GOP rival Ted Cruz were “doing the work of ISIS.”
A Soros spokesman declined to comment for this story.
But, given that the billionaire financier only periodically attends DA meetings and is seldom a part of the formal proceedings, his scheduled Tuesday morning appearance as a speaker suggests that he’s committed to investing in opposing President Trump.
The agenda item for a Tuesday morning “conversation with George Soros” invokes Soros’ personal experience living through the Holocaust and Soviet Communism in the context of preparing for a Trump presidency. The agenda notes that the billionaire currency trader, who grew up in Hungary, “has lived through Nazism and Communism, and has devoted his foundations to protecting the kinds of open societies around the world that are now threatened in the United States itself.”
LaMarche, who for years worked for Soros’s Open Society foundations, told POLITICO that the references to Nazism and Communism are “part of his standard bio.”
LaMarche, who is set to moderate the discussion with Soros, said the donor “does not plan to compare whatever we face under Trump to Nazism, I can tell you that.” LaMarche he also said, “I don’t think there is anyone who has looked at Trump, including many respected conservatives, who doesn’t think the experience of authoritarian states would not be important to learn from here. And to the extent that Soros and his foundations have experience with xenophobia in Europe, Brexit, etc., we want to learn from that as well.”
The Soros conversation was added to the agenda after Election Day. It was just one of many changes made on the fly to adjust for last week’s jarring result and the stark new reality facing liberals, who went from discussing ways to push an incoming President Clinton leftward, to instead discussing how to play defense.
A pre-election working draft of the DA’s agenda, obtained by POLITICO, featured a session on Clinton’s first 100 days and another on “moving a progressive national policy agenda in 2017.” Those sessions were rebranded so that the first instead will examine “what happened” on the “cataclysm of Election Day,” while the second will focus on “combating the massive threats from Trump and Congress in 2017.”
A session that before the election had been titled “Can Our Elections Be Hacked,” after the election was renamed “Was the 2016 Election Hacked” — a theory that has percolated without evidence on the left to explain the surprising result.
In his post-election emails to donors and operatives, LaMarche acknowledged the group had to “scrap many of the original plans for the conference,” explaining “while we made no explicit assumptions about the outcome, the conference we planned, and the agenda you have seen, made more sense in the event of a Hillary Clinton victory.”