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Opinion Here’s how you run for president

Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) during a breakfast roundtable on Feb. 12 in Washington. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) has yet to announce he is running for president. However, his recent swing through early primary states and his more frequent national news media interviews suggest he’s leaning that way. Whether he runs or not, other Democrats might want to see how one runs as a progressive without playing into the right-wing’s hands.

Appearing on CNN, Brown and Dana Bash had this exchange on health care:

BROWN: I want to help people now. I want to expand Medicare to 50. We did that 10 years ago. We fell one vote short, when Senator Lieberman changed his vote. That would have been part of the Affordable Care Act, Medicare at 55 in those days. 
Our bill now, with Senator Stabenow and others, is to bring Medicare, a voluntary buy-in at 50. I want to help people. Now, if we get enough people, we will see a lot of people get in -- in that plan, 58- year-olds and 62-year-olds that have lost their insurance, lost their jobs. We will see the success of that, and that will end up continuing to broaden and expand coverage for so many Americans. . . .
[F]irst of all, you go to Congress and you fix the problems with the Affordable Care Act. You stop the attacks that President [Trump] has made on the — with the navigators. 
He’s taken people — he’s basically fired people that help people get on insurance that could get — that could get subsidized insurance and be in the exchanges, that could get to Medicaid. Government needs an all-in in helping people get on Medicaid. 
I think that if we -- again, I go back, and I want to help people now, and helping people now is building on the Affordable Care Act, not — not repealing Obamacare, which is what they suggest. It’s making sure we fix the consumer protections for preexisting conditions. . . .
BASH: Do you not think that Medicare-for-all is practical? 
BROWN: I think Medicare-for-all will take a while. And it’s difficult. And it’s selling to people who now have insurance that would have to — they would have their insurance plans canceled and move into a government plan. I think that’s difficult. I want to help people now. That’s why you do Medicare at 50.  . . .
BASH: Do you believe there's a place for private health insurance? 
BROWN: Yes. I just said that. I said that in so many words, that you build on the Affordable Care Act. 
BASH: Right. 
BROWN: You don’t wipe it off, wipe it away and then come up with something new that will take time and will cause people angst and anguish to move to a different plan.

He sounds far more capable and serious than those who simply chant Medicare-for-all! Brown chooses to treat voters like adults. What a concept.

Testing the waters for a possible 2020 campaign, Sen. Sherrof Brown (D-Ohio) kicked off his "Dignity of Work" tour in Brunswick, Ohio, on Jan. 30. (Video: Reuters)

Bash also asked about his views on taxes. He first described a revised corporate tax system. (“My Patriot Corporation Act simply says, if you play by the rules, you pay decent wages and benefits, you do your production in the United States, you get a lower tax rate. But if you are one of those companies, big, big companies, executives making millions, but you pay a lot of your workers $10 and $12 and $15 an hour, and they are eligible for food stamps and eligible for Medicaid and eligible for Section 8 housing, you have a — you levy on them a corporate freeloader fee.”) The conversation then moved to the individual tax code:

BASH: I want to ask you about another policy proposal that you say would help working families. It would double the Earned Income Tax Credit, expand the child tax credit. How are you going to pay for that? 
BROWN: Well, you pay for it by — as I said earlier, you — that’s part of the corporate freeloader fee in the Patriot Corporation Act. In our plan that you just mentioned, it will expand Earned Income Tax. . . .
BASH: But would that cover it? 
BROWN: Oh, yes. You pay for it by — you wipe off the books, the Trump tax bill, that blew a trillion-and-a-half-dollar hole in the budget. You start with, instead of giving those tax breaks to the wealthiest people in this country, you focus those tax breaks on corporations that, shall we say, are patriotic, do their production here. . . .
BASH: But you think you can — you think you can do your plan without raising the marginal tax rate for the super rich? I guess that’s my question. Can you do it with — just with the corporate changes?
BROWN: No, I think — well, I answered that earlier by — by saying eliminate the Trump tax bill. . . . I mean, I, of course, support a graduated income tax. I always have. I mean, I — from my votes against the Iraq War 20 years ago, to my support for marriage equality, I have always been a progressive, and I’m consistent on tax policy. 

There are of course much better ways to promote progressivity in tax code (e.g., equalizing the capital gains and regular income rates). Brown shouldn’t have to simply join in on the Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.)-Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) flavor of the month. Frankly, letting other people create a checklist to define “progressive” never seemed like a good idea — nor very presidential.

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And for good measure, he told Bash he wasn’t going to get into a debate on a picayune issue with Beto O’Rourke:

BASH: Former Texas Congressman Beto O’Rourke says he supports taking the border wall, the border fencing in and around El Paso, where he’s from, down, because he said it hasn’t made the country safer. Do you think the existing walls and fencing along the border should come down? 
BROWN: I don't live in El Paso, and I take the congressman there at his word.
BASH: But you are a United States senator who does these policies. 
BROWN: I understand that. 
But I don’t think you look at the border wall in a 12-mile area. I take a back seat to nobody in border security, and it’s clear we have learned over time that we have the technology, helicopters, border agents, to make our country safe and to keep — to keep illegal crossings at a minimum without building a long wall. 
That’s a decision that should be made in the whole context. You don’t say, well, this congressman says take it down here, this congressman says build it up there. You really want to look more broadly than that.

That makes O’Rourke look sort of parochial and Brown look as though he has his eye on the big picture: the national interest.

Brown isn’t being cagey or evasive when he answers questions such as these; it’s refusing to let the interviewer (and by extension, the GOP) formulate the questions (socialism, yes or no?) and set the terms of the debate. Instead of answering yes or no to other people’s plans, he says what his own plans are. Frankly, as progressive as he is, it’s not the sort of thing that is going to put off a lot of people in the middle (ideologically and geographically), who, like a large majority of Americans, find nothing objectionable about raising taxes on the rich.

Brown’s determination to set his own agenda, define himself and avoid playing into the Republicans’ game (i.e., paint Democrats as loony socialists) strikes me as smart politics. Letting AOC write your policy agenda? Not so much.

Read more:

Henry Olsen: Sherrod Brown could have the winning strategy

Jennifer Rubin: Sherrod Brown has message and geography going for him

Greg Sargent: Sherrod Brown as Trump-slayer? Here’s his big idea.

George F. Will: This candidate may be the optimum challenger to Trump in 2020

Jennifer Rubin: Sherrod Brown prompts the question: Can a Democrat do nuance?