The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion This candidate may be the optimum challenger to Trump in 2020

Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) said Donald Trump "only looks out for Donald Trump," at the Democratic National Convention on July, 28, 2016. (Video: The Washington Post)

“The money man dealing himself a hot royal flush. Then giving you and me a phony hand like a pair of tens or something.”

— “Waiting for Lefty,”
Clifford Odets, 1935

With his gravelly voice and his lack of senatorial sheen — even in a well-pressed suit, he somehow radiates rumpledness — Sherrod Brown could have wandered into the Senate from Depression-era proletarian literature. The Ohio Democrat’s populist persona is undiminished by his Yale degree. But, then, Norman Thomas, the Socialist Party’s presidential candidate six times, was Princeton Class of 1905. During the workers’ uprising, martinis will be served at 6 p.m.

Last month, Brown, 66, became just the fifth Ohio senator since the popular election of senators began in 1914 to achieve a third term, winning by six percentage points in a state Donald Trump carried by eight points, a state no Republican has lost while winning the presidency. Brown did 20 points better than Hillary Clinton’s 2016 results in Appalachian Ohio and the industrial Mahoning Valley, and 15 points better in Lucas County, an autoworkers’ stronghold. If Democrats are looking for a lefty who can win in 2020, they should look at Brown as seriously as he is looking at running.

The fact that he is a political lifer — elected Ohio’s secretary of state in 1982 at 29, he then served seven terms in Congress — seems less like a defect than a credential now that the nation is two years into its experiment with treating the presidency as an entry-level public office. In the most important vote during Brown’s 25 years on Capitol Hill, he voted against the resolution authorizing the invasion of Iraq.

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Although the Democrats’ nominating electorate loathes Trump, it will like the fact that Brown has been principled, consistent and wrong about protectionism, which Trump favors because, like Brown and too many other Democrats, he thinks big government can fine-tune flows of goods, service and capital. Brown’s muscular progressivism, explained in pitiless detail in a 45-page manifesto (“Working Too Hard for Too Little: A Plan for Restoring the Value of Work in America”), should alarm conservatives wary of interventionist government and therefore should thrill progressives with fresh reasons to enlarge the administrative state. He is already intellectually limbered up to compete in the policy-sweepstakes part of the scramble for his party’s nomination.

In 1996, then-Rep. Brown voted against the Defense of Marriage Act, which, until the Supreme Court ruled otherwise in 2013, denied same-sex couples all benefits and recognition given to opposite-sex couples. In 2004, Ohioans voted 62 percent to 38 percent to ban not just gay marriages but also civil unions, and to deny health benefits to unmarried couples, gay or not, at public colleges. The next Sunday, as Brown’s wife, Connie Schultz, a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for the Cleveland Plain Dealer, wrote, their pastor asked everyone in the congregation affected by the vote to stand. The pastor stood, as did the choir director, the man leading the drive for Christmas presents for poor children, and about 50 others. Brown, who estimates that today the 2004 measure would be as emphatically rejected as it was endorsed, thinks this episode illustrates how changeable American attitudes can be, something he saw at home when his father voted for Barry Goldwater in 1964 and George McGovern eight years later.

Ohio has voted for the winner in 45 of the 54 presidential elections since it attained statehood in 1803, and all but two since 1892 — in 1944, when Ohio Gov. John Bricker was Thomas Dewey’s running mate, and in 1960, when Richard M. Nixon defeated John F. Kennedy. The hoary axiom that among senators the only cure for presidential ambitions is embalming fluid does not apply to Brown, who understands another axiom: Anyone who will do what is necessary to become president should not be allowed to be president.

He loves being a senator: At the end of his interview with Clinton when she was auditioning potential running mates, he said he would like to be hers, would like to campaign between Ohio and Iowa, and the day after victory he would like to resign as vice president-elect and return to the Senate. He must decide how ardently he wants the presidency; Democrats must decide how single-minded they are about defeating Trump. Were Brown not a white male, he might be the likely Democratic nominee because, to minds unclouded by the Democratic activists’ superstitions of identity politics, he might look like the optimum challenger to Trump.

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Gary Abernathy: Sherrod Brown’s balancing act

Katrina vanden Heuvel: How Democrats can win back the working class

Ruy Teixeira: The midterms gave Democrats clear marching orders for 2020