Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), who says he is weighing a presidential bid, speaks at an event in Dubuque, Iowa, on Saturday. (Jessica Reilly/Telegraph Herald via AP)
Opinion writer

Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) is touring early primary states and sure sounds as if he has already decided to run for president. Known for his appeal to Rust Belt working-class voters, it has been easy for the media to consign him to a “lane” — the white guy lane, the Midwest lane, the white-male, voter-whisperer lane — but like all successful politicians, Brown’s career has not relied on support from a single group of voters.

On Sunday on “Meet the Press,” Brown showed some fire in the belly on the issue of race:

SEN. SHERROD BROWN:

Well, I think this country hasn't dealt well with the issues of race. I mean, we have a president who's a racist. Who we have, you know —

CHUCK TODD:

Let me pause you there. You believe, in his heart, he's a racist?

SEN. SHERROD BROWN:

Well, I don’t know what, “in his heart,” means. I know that he built his political career, knowing what he was doing on questioning the legitimacy and the birthplace of the President of the United States. I know, early, and we — there have been all kinds of news reports about what he did early in his career on housing. We know, I mean, read “The New Jim Crow” by Michelle Alexander. Read “The Color of Law,” about housing discrimination and decades and decades and decades of housing discrimination. And we know that the Trump family, including the now-sitting president, played to that and deepened that. So these issues, this is not a recent — Charlottesville was only a symptom and a more-public viewing and outing, if you will, of the president’s views about race. I mean, there’s just no question about that. We know the president doesn’t tell the truth frequently. We know he lies frequently. And we know of his racial back — racist comments and background.

CHUCK TODD:

You spent the last couple of — 

SEN. SHERROD BROWN:

You know, and that’s not even counting, Chuck, that’s not even counting the policies of this administration. We have consent decrees all over this country, including in Cleveland. We have a Justice Department that’s turned its back on it. We know about voter suppression. I was secretary of state of Ohio. My job, when I was secretary of state, was to encourage people of all races to vote, especially young people, and especially young people of color. And we worked at that. We now have a government that suppresses the vote. And we know what happened in Georgia. And we know what happened in Florida.

Impassioned, but detailed and well-argued. So don’t confuse Brown’s message with Trump’s white-grievance mongering.

Brown makes the point that too often when the press and pols say “working class,” we think only of whites. Brown has spent time grappling with race and working-class struggles:

... whether it’s in Iowa or when I’m going to South Carolina in a couple of weeks or our hometown of Cleveland and where Connie and I live, in a, you know, racially mixed neighborhood, of course. And the -- when you talk about the dignity of work, I’m talking about all workers, whether you swipe a badge or punch a clock, whether you’re working on salary or working for tips, whether you shower before work or after work, whether you’re raising kids. And always recognizing that women and people of color have even more challenges in the workplace, in terms of wages, in terms of benefits, in terms of schedules, where they arrange childcare, and their employer then changes their hours that they’re working. So the dignity of work is, clearly, all workers in this country. And if -- it’s, it’s a pitch to the broad numbers of people in this country that aren’t treated well, that don’t — that work hard every day and simply aren’t getting ahead. If you love your country, you’ll fight for the people who make it work, across all races. And that’s the theme of my campaign, if there — if I do run for president, certainly, the theme of the dignity of work.

(It should be noted that Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) makes a similar argument.)

Brown’s a self-described bold progressive, but not one lacking pragmatism or common sense. “I have always fought for bold change. I live in a state, Ohio, I represent a state where Trump’s promises of bringing back jobs and re-industrialization and opening up new factories have clearly just fallen flat,” he said. Confronted with constituents who need help right now, however, he says, "I’m for universal coverage. I want to help people quickly. I want to pass Medicare at 55 or even 50, so [a voter whose husband had died of cancer] can get coverage, and her life can improve, and can have that anxiety allayed, so she has — so she can have a better life with her kids and her grandkids. That’s what I want to see done.” Take half a loaf and go for the rest later.

Even on trade, where he has breathed protectionist fire, Brown clarified that he thinks tariffs are a means, not an end unto themselves. The Toledo Blade reported on Brown’s swing through Iowa:

A progressive who’s popular among the working class, Mr. Brown initially favored the President’s tariffs, but appeared to walk back that support on Friday.

“Full disclosure: I supported the tariffs originally,” he said, adding, however, that Mr. Trump hasn’t implemented them wisely. “The reason I would support them is they are a temporary tool to get to a long-term point, not a long-term trade policy.”

The problem with starting a tariff war, of course, is that a short-term point quickly becomes a long-term trade war.

Cynics would say he’s triangulating or walking back positions. Brown instead may exhibit the very qualities we complain are missing in politics. We should praise rather than deride someone who evidences the skill to lay out a bold goal, figure how to sway people to his side, make progress without compromising a larger objective and avoid making the perfect the enemy of the good. The real art of the deal requires that a politician understand the issues and opponents' concerns well enough that he or she can figure out how to get closer to his endpoint.

Rather than trying to label every nod to reality as a contradiction or a walk-back, the media might better serve voters by explaining why blanket promises and non-negotiable stances (e.g., build a wall, abolish private insurance) give us polarization and gridlock. Reporters can demand to know why a candidate isn’t holding out for the perfect solution but also seek to enlighten viewers and readers by grilling the absolutists. (What if you don’t have a 60-vote filibuster-proof majority? How are you going to convince voters that all-public health care is cheaper and better than what they have?) In playing the gotcha game wherein they score points by scrounging for inconsistencies and ridiculing candidates who acknowledge reality, they incentivize candidates to adhere to extreme and unrealistic positions.

The Democratic Party and the country could use more adept horse-traders and fewer ideological purists. Instead of vying to be the most progressive contender, savvy presidential contenders should present themselves as the most capable of creating consensus and thereby achieving the most policy gains. That, after all, is what politics is all about.

Read more from Jennifer Rubin:

Here’s what Democrats should look for in a 2020 nominee

What voters need to hear from Democratic contenders on health care

Here’s why Cory Gardner and other Republicans deserve to lose in 2020