If you’ve heard of Rep. Tim Ryan, it’s probably because he once challenged Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) to be the leader of House Democrats, saying the caucus needed to be led by someone from the kind of place where Donald Trump had found support. Ryan regularly invoked Youngstown, Ohio, which his district includes, as an emblem of his authenticity, a slice of the hardscrabble heartland that Democrats must win back.
Now, Ryan is running for president, but his rationale is more nuanced than you might expect. Instead of just saying Democrats need to reach out to exalted white working-class voters, he seems to be trying to create a synthesis that begins with his traditional focus on the Midwest, but also incorporates at least some of the energetic, progressive policy ambition that is increasingly defining the Democratic Party.
If you watch the video above that announces Ryan’s presidential bid, you’ll see how it screams “Rust Belt” — gray skies, factories, towns that have seen better days, people heading to work with both worry and determination in their eyes.
In the typical media shorthand, moderate Democrats who say they can win this region are assumed to be extremely cautious on issues such as climate change and the proper scale of government intervention in the economy. After all, only snooty coastal elitists care about climate, and President Trump can cast a spell over the entire region by chanting about bringing back coal and manufacturing through deregulation.
But Ryan’s approach doesn’t really accept that premise.
During an interview with the Plum Line, Ryan was asked what central policy idea might enable Democrats to win back that region in 2020.
“We need to create an industrial policy in the United States,” Ryan said. “We need to organize our innovations around the environment, around manufacturing, around future economies that are growing at a very rapid pace.”
Ryan himself volunteered the phrase “Green New Deal” without being asked, but talked about it with more of an emphasis on outdoing Trump when it comes to competing with China. Ryan said that to fare better in that competition, the United States needs national strategies on renewable energies and emerging technologies.
“Trump talks a lot about China, but we have no national strategy on electric vehicles, on wind and solar,” Ryan said. “Right now, China dominates 40 percent of the electric vehicle market, they dominate 60 percent of the solar panel market. This campaign is going to be about the big idea that creates a national industrial policy” that says to China, “we’re gonna out-compete you.”
“We need a Green New Deal,” Ryan said. His version would include using the tax code to “incentivize investments” into renewable energies and green technologies, and into “distressed communities.” It would also include an emphasis on making sure we have enough college graduates in science, technology, engineering and mathematics to “help us continue to build out the innovations we need to decarbonize the economy.”
Ryan was asked whether he thought big industrial policy that invests heavily in decarbonization can play well in the Rust Belt. “Yeah — when you look at the jobs that can be created, when you look at how sequestering carbon can be a mechanism to pay farmers,” Ryan said, adding that a key selling point could be that “we’re going to manufacture these new technologies in the industrial heartland.”
Ryan was asked about the future of the coal industry, which the president has vowed to bring roaring back — and which was supposedly key to his appeal in the region. “The future is in the new technologies,” Ryan said. “It’s time for us to say, ‘Look, we’re going to make sure that coal country is going to be plugged into the new economy and that we’re going to be creating jobs that are equivalent in wages and benefits to the coal jobs.' ”
Judging by this first interview, Ryan’s approach — at least for now — appears to lean more directly on incentivizing business investment than it does on direct public expenditures. However, when asked what scale of public investments in renewable energies he’d be willing to support, Ryan said, “we need to sit down with experts in these fields, but it needs to be significant.”
Ryan says he broadly agrees with the diagnosis of rural America’s ills offered by candidates such as Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who have vowed aggressive action to combat corporate concentration in the agriculture sector, where huge companies dominate markets in things such as meat processing and seed, squeezing farmers’ buying options and profits.
“There is a scam being run right now on farmers in America that is unlike anything I’ve ever seen in my career,” Ryan said, noting that big corporations have “concentrated so much power that farmers haven’t made money in five years.”
Ryan also said he’d be rolling out a comprehensive agenda for boosting workers’ bargaining power. However, he demurred when asked whether he favored eliminating the legislative filibuster, which might be necessary for Democrats to pass major initiatives of the type he and others in his party envision.
Ryan’s record isn’t as conservative as you’d think. According to a measure developed by political scientists to pinpoint ideology, for his whole career he’s mostly been right in the middle of House Democrats. In the last Congress, he voted more liberally than 56 percent of Democrats. He wrote a book about mindfulness, and another about the importance of eating fresh foods.
Ryan’s bid is a long shot. He’s not nationally known, he doesn’t have much in the way of extraordinary achievements, and there are other candidates who are more charismatic. But he is offering a different approach to winning back “Trump country” than designated moderates are “supposed” to offer, and that’s noteworthy.