Sherrod Brown’s Blueprint for Victory

He’s not running for president, but other Democrats should steal his playbook.

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Photos by Melina Mara

The telemarketers have invaded cellphones, so when I got a call at 11:45 a.m. on March 7 with a number but no name attached to it, I didn’t bother to answer. My mistake. It was Jenny Donohue, the communications director for Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), wanting to give me a “heads-up about something.” A minute later, she sent me an email titled “Senator Will Not Run for President in 2020.”

I had been working for several months on a profile of Brown as a potential presidential candidate: I had just interviewed him the week before, had followed him around during his recent tour of early primary and caucus states, and had talked to his friends, his family and his political associates. My piece was due the next day.

Clearly, Brown’s decision to sit out 2020 was not good news for my article. But, if you’re someone who wants to see Donald Trump defeated in 2020, it was far worse news for the country. During the course of my reporting, I had come to believe that Brown, 66, would have made a formidable candidate against Trump. With his longtime experience in politics — before becoming a U.S. senator in 2006, he had served as a state legislator, Ohio’s secretary of state and a member of the U.S. House of Representatives — he might also have made a good president. As Alan Tonelson, the former research director of a lobby for smaller manufacturing companies and no flaming liberal, had told me about Brown’s grasp of policy: “He may be the smartest politician I’ve ever encountered.”

Even though Brown won’t be the nominee, there are still things about his politics and about the way he conducts himself that liberals really should be aware of. Indeed, the remaining Democrats’ path to beating Trump may very well lie in extracting some of the key lessons from Brown’s candidacy-that-never-was — and applying them to their own campaigns.

Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) stands with his wife, journalist Connie Schultz, and South Carolina voters at a meet-the-candidates oyster roast at the Summerville Country Club in Summerville, S.C., on March 2, 2019.

I.
The Left-Winger as Moderate

The country has moved leftward on economic issues since the Great Recession. You could see that in 2014, when voters in solidly Republican Arkansas, Alaska, South Dakota and Nebraska approved increases in the minimum wage, even as they handed the GOP a decisive victory in the midterm elections. You could see it in Bernie Sanders’s success in the Democratic primaries in 2016, or in Trump’s insurgent campaign, when he appeared to side with workers against big business and their Washington lobbyists in opposing past trade deals and decrying corporations that moved out of the country in search of cheaper wages and lower taxes.

In all these instances, voters hoped to increase workers’ incomes and protect their jobs, even at the expense of business. That’s the historical role of the left. But at the same time, these voters don’t necessarily identify as “left-wing.” There’s an important disjunction here that helps explain Brown’s appeal in Ohio and why he would have made a strong general-election candidate.

Brown’s history in office and the proposals he embraces are about improving the lot of American workers, sometimes at the expense of corporations and the wealthy. He was an outspoken foe of the North American Free Trade Agreement and of China’s entry into the World Trade Organization as a “developing nation,” which he charged would doom American manufacturing; he was also a harsh critic of the 2017 Republican tax bill, which he claims gives an incentive for companies to move overseas. His current proposals — which he promoted during his recent proto-campaign, dubbed “The Dignity of Work” tour — would reward companies for investing in American jobs that pay a living wage and charge corporations a “freeloader fee” when they pay their employees so little that they have to go on food stamps and Medicaid. And he would raise the earned income tax credit for workers who barely escape poverty.

Brown doesn’t promote potentially disruptive “big government” programs that could significantly raise taxes. He also avoids extreme social and cultural positions.

These are, fundamentally, left-wing proposals. But when I was following Brown around New Hampshire, I was surprised to hear people at his events describe him as a moderate. And when he announced that he would not run, one headline that ran on a number of news sites was “Moderate Democrat Sherrod Brown Says He’s Not Running For President.” That identification is reflected in Brown’s success in Ohio, where, in the last election, the 41 percent of the electorate that identified itself as “moderate” (the largest bloc of voters) favored Brown by 2-to-1.

Being perceived as moderate rather than “right-wing” or “left-wing” can be a huge advantage in American politics. One reason voters might see Brown as moderate is his temperament. He is not angry. “His default button is set to joy,” his wife, journalist Connie Schultz, told me. He doesn’t rail against the “billionaire class” the way Sanders does. He appears affable with his tousled hair, off-the-rack suits and New Balance sneakers. Supporters in Ohio described him to me as looking like a “regular guy.” Here, there is an analogy with Ronald Reagan, who benefited from his public affability and informality, even as he pursued a very conservative agenda. (It used to be said that Reagan could make extreme proposals sound moderate, and Barry Goldwater could make moderate proposals sound extreme.)

Brown has also benefited from avoiding two kinds of political stands that have led self-identified moderates to reject politicians they see as “left-wing.” First, Brown doesn’t promote potentially disruptive “big government” programs that could significantly raise taxes. This includes Medicare-for-all and the Green New Deal, both of which several Democratic candidates have endorsed. Brown is not dismissive of the problems that these kinds of programs address, but he worries about proposing initiatives that could not win popular support and would be difficult to implement.

Brown and Schultz join others on a march over the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., on March 3, 2019.

When Brown was in the House, he actually backed then-Rep. Jim McDermott’s single-payer alternative to the Clinton health-care plan in 1994, and he told me that he still sees such a plan as a long-term objective. For the moment, however, Brown favors making Medicare available to people age 50 and older, and creating a public option to supplement the private plans offered under the Affordable Care Act. “I see it as a matter of steps, and I don’t know how you convince millions of people to drop their private health insurance,” he told me.

Brown also avoids the extreme social and cultural positions that are today being heavily promoted by young left-wing activists. He is a longtime advocate of civil rights and women’s rights, and was one of a minority of Democrats to vote in 1996 against the Defense of Marriage Act; but when I asked him what he thought about calls to abolish Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and reparations for African Americans, he said, “You don’t abolish ICE. You improve it.” He didn’t comment at all on reparations.

There’s an obvious lesson here. In 2020, Democrats can advocate left-wing economic programs and win in key Midwestern states like Ohio and Michigan. There is widespread public support for measures that would raise workers’ wages and limit the ability of corporations to move out of the country and evade taxes. What Democrats have to avoid — and what Brown tried to steer clear of during his brief flirtation with a presidential run — are proposals that raise the specter of big government and high taxes, as well as social measures that brush aside public fears about safety, or benefit one part of working America at the expense of, or to the exclusion of, another.

Brown and Schultz watch as marchers lie down at the entrance to the bridge in Selma.

II.
The Politics of the Social Gospel

During his recent travels, Brown spoke about the idea that Americans deserve respect and good wages regardless of the kind of work they do. “As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. taught us, ‘all labor has dignity,’ and no job is really menial if it pays adequate wages,” Brown said in his Brunswick, Ohio, speech kicking off the tour. “The dignity of work means hard work should pay off for everyone, no matter who you are or what kind of work you do — whether you punch a clock or swipe a badge, earn a salary or make tips, whether you’re raising children or caring for an aging parent, regardless of your race or gender.” Brown repeated this statement almost word for word in every speech I heard him give.

Brown’s focus on the well-being of workers, along with his own lack of pretension and casual appearance, might create the impression that he himself is a product of the proletariat. In a 2012 interview on “Hardball,” Chris Matthews told Brown, “You’re the labor guy. You’re a blue-collar kind.” But nothing could be further from the truth. Brown’s father, who was a successful physician in Mansfield, Ohio, descended from a long line of prominent Ohioans. Sherrod and his two brothers grew up in a three-story Colonial in Mansfield and spent summers on the family’s 285-acre farm. All three Brown children graduated from Ivy League colleges — Sherrod from Yale in 1974 with a degree in Russian studies.

So the question is how Sherrod Brown became a “labor guy.” One reason is the place he grew up. Located 80 miles southwest of Cleveland, Mansfield was an industrial boom town during the decades after World War II. Westinghouse, Tappan, Empire Steel and General Motors had multi-block-size plants there. Ron Davis, a retired steelworker and union official who went to high school with Brown, told me: “The saying was that you could quit your job in the morning and have a new job by lunch.” But beginning in the 1970s, one big plant after another left town. What remains are huge empty lots. Mansfield has lost almost 16 percent of its population since 1970. That was the reality that Brown began to confront when, fresh from Yale in 1974, he was elected state representative.

That alone doesn’t explain Brown, however. Other aspiring politicians have grown up in a dying industrial town without becoming a tribune for its workers. Former House speaker Paul Ryan, a fierce defender of corporate prerogatives, grew up in and later represented Janesville, Wis., which was ravaged by factory closeouts.

Instead, the most convincing explanation I found for Brown’s political evolution is the influence of his mother, Emily Campbell Brown — specifically, her combination of political and religious conviction. While Sherrod’s father, Charles Brown, was a moderate Republican and a man of few words, Emily Brown was a Democrat and an eloquent advocate for civil rights. Religion played a large role in her politics. She attended church regularly and spent 20 minutes every morning reading the Bible. Her main activity when Brown was growing up was the Young Women’s Christian Association, which was founded to promote Christian principles and became active in the civil rights movement of the 1960s. In 1972, she was a delegate to its convention on racial justice in New York. She was later a board member for Habitat for Humanity, which describes itself as a “Christian housing ministry”; she was also a leader of Richland County’s Democratic Party and a founder of its women’s caucus. Her photo hangs in the local party office.

Brown would share some of Sanders’s ultimate objectives. But while Brown focuses on the intermediate steps, Sanders focuses on the ends.

Sherrod followed his mother’s example. At Mansfield Senior High School, he was president of the student council, and in 1970 he led a march down the town’s main street for Earth Day. He was one of the few white members of the high school’s Black Studies Club. At Yale, he worked on multiple political campaigns, including George McGovern’s 1972 presidential bid. And like his mother, he blended Christian devotion with politics. When he came to Congress in 1993, he joined a weekly prayer group. Brown has said that history’s greatest political speech was Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, and when he married Schultz in 2004, he asked their wedding officiant — Pastor Kate Matthews — to base her sermon on the Beatitudes, which are part of the Sermon on the Mount. According to Schultz, Brown read the Bible all the way through four years ago. When I suggested to Matthews that Brown’s politics were shaped by his religions conviction, she replied: “Yes, I would say that you are exactly right. What I observed in Sherrod is very much a motivation grounded in faith. He really wrestles with the Bible and the questions about God. He really is interested in what the Bible tells him to do.”

Brown’s strain of Christian advocacy, like that of his mother and of his idol, Martin Luther King, dates from the 19th-century turn of Protestants away from individual salvation toward social reform. The Protestant Social Gospel informed both progressive and socialist movements in the early 20th century and organizations like the YWCA. It sought to build the Kingdom of God on Earth by healing or eliminating the class division that the Industrial Revolution had created. It preached social equality.

Brown travels to Alabama for the march in Selma.
Brown en route to Selma.
Brown travels to Alabama for the march in Selma.

During his “Dignity of Work” tour, Brown quoted a passage from the New Testament’s Book of Matthew, Chapter 25, that was a central text of the Social Gospel. In it, Jesus praises those who feed the hungry, tend the sick, clothe the naked and take in the stranger — what is done for “the least of these” — and condemns those who give the thirsty nothing to drink. Advised by Matthews, Brown translated “the least of these” to “those who are less important.” (“John Judis is not worth less than Jenny is,” he interjected during our interview, referring to his communications head, who was sitting with us.) That passage, Brown explained, “increasingly drives me in this world.” Brown told me that he considered being a politician a “calling” rather than a “career.” Indeed, the title of his tour, “The Dignity of Work,” more closely resembles the title of a sermon than the slogan for a political campaign.

Brown fully acknowledges his mother’s influence. I asked him who he would substitute for Jesus in the question “What would Jesus do?” and the first name that came to his mind was his mother. The one area where Brown rebelled from her was in his dress. Amy Burns, a Mansfield schoolteacher who got to know Emily Brown later in her life, describes her as being “elegant” and recalls her being concerned about her son’s unruly hair. “It was a rebellion in the sense that everything was in the late ’60s and early ’70s,” Brown told me. But it has become, I think, an expression of his political and religious conviction. By eschewing Brioni suits and Gucci loafers, Brown is displaying his determination not to appear more important than his constituents. It’s Matthew 25.

In reviving a tradition that helped produce the Progressive Era and the New Deal, as well as the civil rights revolution of the 1960s, Brown is reclaiming religion and Christianity from the religious right and the Republicans. And at a moment when liberals are increasingly describing themselves as “socialists” — a word that has often been associated with hard-line secularism — Brown’s worldview is a reminder that liberal and democratic socialist advocacy arose out of, and can continue to base itself, consciously or not, on an enduring American religious tradition.

Brown at the march in Alabama. A few days later, he would announce he is not running for president.

III.
Pragmatic Means vs. Utopian Ends (Or: The Difference Between Sherrod Brown and Bernie Sanders)

I don’t know why Brown decided not to run. I suspect from his statements afterward that his heart was not in the long slog of a campaign. But just as I became convinced that Brown would have made a formidable general-election candidate, I became equally convinced that he would not get the Democratic nomination. Here’s the political science version: The calendar was against him. He could expect to be strongest in the industrial Midwest, but before Democrats got around to voting in Ohio and Michigan on March 10, they would have already gone through New England, the Deep South, Texas and California. Other candidates stood a much better chance of winning those places. And if Brown failed to make a significant showing in those states, his funding would dry up. (And even in the Midwest and in Pennsylvania, which doesn’t vote until April, Brown might have had to divide the working-class vote with former vice president Joe Biden.)

There were, however, deeper reasons Brown would probably not have won the nomination. In Ohio, Brown has appeal across the Democratic electorate, but in the deepest recesses of his politics, he is an evangelist for what he calls the “the people that are invisible in society” — the worker of modest means and status. This goes back to the thousands of workers who lost their jobs when Mansfield’s factories shut down. More recently, it is the former workers at General Motors’ newly shuttered plant in Lordstown, Ohio, who have been “pushed aside by GM,” as Brown charged in his Brunswick speech. He recounted how one woman from the plant had told him, “All we want is to get up and work hard, support our families, build a nest egg, and have decent health care and retirement. But those jobs are getting harder and harder to come by.” “She’s right,” Brown exclaimed.

This vision of politics doesn’t resonate among many of the young upscale Democrats on the coasts who increasingly dominate the Democratic Party. On a Saturday night in February, I watched Brown give the keynote address at the well-attended annual convention of New Hampshire’s Young Democrats. It’s a large and important group in state politics that extends from high school student council presidents to young state legislators. Candidates, including those for president, draw volunteers and even staff from this group. Brown gave his standard “Dignity of Work” speech, but many of the details seemed to elude the audience. He told them of his wife’s father “being a proud member of the Utility Workers Local 270.” He assured them that “you shouldn’t need a second or third job just to make ends meet.” He inserted lines about not being able to “afford a starter home” and needing to “drive an Uber at night just to make a rent,” but you could feel him losing the crowd. By halfway through, some of the young people were looking at their phones or quietly chatting while Brown spoke. Some of them started heading for exits before he was finished.

Schultz and Brown with marchers, including Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), right.

The second reason Brown would have had trouble in the primaries is that, dutiful legislator that he is, he tends to become fixated on means, not eventual ends — or on what might be immediately possible to the exclusion of what is eventually desirable. In Brown’s speech to the Young Democrats, he expressed sympathy for students who were “drowning in college debt” and proposed increasing Pell Grants and forgiving loans after 20 years — when most of the students in the audience would be middle-aged. At a small meeting in Las Vegas sponsored by a community organization called Make It Work Nevada, Brown was asked by a distraught young woman, who had fallen between the cracks of the Affordable Care Act, why Medicare-for-all wasn’t the best solution. He responded like a pragmatic legislator. “I just know that Mitch McConnell won’t pass Medicare-for-all,” he said.

Consider the difference between Brown’s approach to politics and that of Bernie Sanders, who was once one of Brown’s closest friends and political allies. Brown, like Sanders, criticizes past Democratic administrations from the left. “I think no president has stood up in my memory to corporate interests who have outsourced jobs or to Wall Street,” Brown told me. And Brown would share some of Sanders’s ultimate objectives, such as single-payer health insurance. But while Brown focuses on the intermediate steps, Sanders focuses on the ends. Sanders — whose lodestar was another leading proponent of the Social Gospel, Socialist Party leader Eugene V. Debs — passionately advocates for Medicare-for-all, the Green New Deal, tuition-free college education and a federal job guarantee for the unemployed; but he does not spell out the pragmatic steps needed to achieve these objectives. They would simply be part of a “political revolution.”

Sanders’s approach, which other candidates are increasingly adopting, won enthusiastic support in 2016 among primary voters, and continues to do so. But, if ultimate ends are not paired with realistic means, it could lead to disaster in a general election. In Colorado in 2016, voters gave their electoral votes to Hillary Clinton — but also defeated a Sanders-backed referendum for a single-payer health-care system by a margin of 4-to-1. By contrast, Brown’s attention to immediate detail and moderate, achievable initiatives might have fared very well in a general election against a president who has acquired a reputation for erratic extremism. Brown’s proposals to shore up our health insurance system by instituting a public option and allowing 50-year-olds to obtain Medicare would capture the center and the left from a president who has endorsed plans to gut the Affordable Care Act and to cut Medicare. And while Brown’s attention to factory shutdowns, corporate freeloading and the earned income tax cut, and his celebration of street sweepers, waitresses and laid-off autoworkers, might not have excited some primary voters, all of this might well have resonated among voters in crucial swing states in the general election. Democratic voters may not rue his absence in the primaries, but come November 2020 they might wish he had stayed in the race — unless, that is, other Democratic candidates decide to borrow from the Sherrod Brown playbook.

John B. Judis is the author of “The Nationalist Revival: Trade, Immigration, and the Revolt Against Globalization.”

Credits: Story by John B. Judis. Photos by Melina Mara. Designed by Suzette Moyer.