At the risk of seeming ridiculous, I think Sherrod Brown should run for president. I know that, barring a debilitating health problem or a horrible scandal, Hillary Clinton is likely to capture the Democratic nomination. I realize too that Brown, the senior senator from Ohio, has never hinted that he may be tempted to challenge her. “I’m really happy where I am,” he told Chris Matthews last winter, when the MSNBC’s paragon of impatience urged him to run.
Yet, for progressive Democrats, Brown would be a nearly perfect nominee. During his two decades in the House and Senate, he has taken strong and articulate stands on every issue which matters to the party’s broad, if currently dispirited, liberal base. When George W. Bush was in office and riding high, Brown opposed both his invasion of Iraq and the Patriot Act. He has long been a staunch supporter of abortion rights and gay marriage, and is married to Connie Schultz, a feminist author who writes a nationally syndicated column.
Brown’s true mission, however, is economic: He wants to boost the well-being of working Americans by any means necessary. Brown has been talking and legislating about how to accomplish it for years before Elizabeth Warren left Harvard for the Capitol. During Obama’s first term, he advocated a larger stimulus package, called for re-enacting the Glass-Steagall Act to rein in big banks, and stumped for comprehensive immigration reform. He champions the rights of unions and the power of the National Labor Relations Board and criticizes unregulated “free trade” for destroying manufacturing jobs at home. He also led the charge among Senate Democrats that pressured Obama to drop his plan to appoint Larry Summers to head the Federal Reserve and appoint Janet Yellen instead.
On his lapel, Brown wears a canary pin to honor the workers’ movement that “gave us all food safety laws, civil rights, rights for the disabled, pensions and the minimum wage.” Like the canaries which miners once took with them into the pits to warn them of toxic gas, the pin symbolizes the need to stay on guard against any employers and politicians who threaten those gains.
There are other Democrats—Warren is the best known—who also skillfully combine a politics of economic populism with a commitment to gender equality and civil liberties. But only Brown represents a populous swing state that has voted for the victor in every presidential election since 1960. In both his Senate races, Brown faced well-known and well-financed Republican opponents—and creamed them. In 2006, his unexpected 12-point margin over Mike DeWine was aided, in part, by the anti-Bush wave that gave Democrats control of Congress. Still, DeWine was a two-term incumbent who had been elected previously by landslides. In 2012, Brown faced Josh Mandel, the popular young state Treasurer. After what became that cycle’s most expensive Senate race, Brown won by six points. He outpolled Barack Obama in Ohio by over 160,000 votes.
Brown’s success, like that of many politicians who are popular in swing states, relies, in part, on charm. He relishes going to hundreds of town meetings around the state, where he answers any question thrown at him. Whether in public or talking to an interviewer in his office, he comes off as relaxed, witty, curious, and rhetoric-free. Two years ago, when I spoke with him in Washington, we spent so much time talking and laughing about his Ohio predecessors—who included the formidable Mark Hanna, the Republican who, in 1896, pioneered the big-money, mass media national campaign—that we barely had enough time to talk about Brown’s career and policies. I have never enjoyed myself so much with any politician, particularly one who was, at the time, fighting to keep his seat.
But Brown earns his popularity by refusing to trim his progressive faith or apologize for it. “If you remember who you are,” he told me, “you don’t have to move to the center, wherever the center happens to be at any moment.” He keeps insisting that America will not become a decent society unless the labor movement regains some of its strength and corporations lose a good deal of their power over campaigns and politicians.
Last summer, George Will paid Brown a kind of tribute. “He looks, sounds and acts like a real, as opposed to faculty club, leftist,” wrote Will in a rare moment when he put his irony, if not his hauteur, aside. “Although he is a Yale graduate, he has the rumpled look and hoarse voice of someone who spent last night on Paris barricades, exhorting les miserables to chuck cobblestones at the forces defending property.” Will did have a point when he contrasted Sherrod Brown’s good-natured, steadfast populism with Hillary Clinton’s “risk-averse careerism” and “joyless plod” toward the Democratic nomination.
If nothing else, Sherrod Brown could help push the plight of “the struggling middle class”—which is really composed of men and women who work for wages or a mediocre salary—to the forefront of the Democratic primary campaign, where it deserves to be. And no journalist could accuse him of altering his views to do so. According to exit polls from the midterm election, nearly two-thirds of Americans believe their government favors the wealthy. Senator Brown must be less “happy” now when he contemplates spending the next two years objecting again and again to the deeds of the new Republican majority. Why shouldn’t he speak liberal truths to power—in his party and the nation—instead?