Liberals' unsung hero: Sherrod Brown explains how to win over Republicans

Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown tells Salon how Democrats can win red states -- and details his vision for liberalism

Published September 27, 2013 2:29PM (EDT)

Sherrod Brown           (AP/J. Scott Applewhite)
Sherrod Brown (AP/J. Scott Applewhite)

First elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1992 and then the Senate in 2006, Ohio’s Sherrod Brown may be the most progressive senator representing a purple state in America. In a Thursday interview, he spoke with Salon about Republican debt ceiling brinkmanship, his efforts to push the president, and the lessons of his electoral success.

You got reelected repeatedly in a battleground state, while championing collective bargaining rights and running as an unabashed progressive. Does it bother you that more of your colleagues don’t take that approach? What do you think they should learn from your example?

It doesn’t particularly bother me. I mean it’s not really my place to be bothered by how my colleagues run their campaigns.

I think, though, that I’ve tried to show a path: In a state like Ohio, which is obviously a state that probably is slightly Republican, you can run as a progressive -- if you talk to people, and you talk about everything from access to college, to manufacturing, to trade deals, to healthcare and giving people opportunity.

So I mean, nothing new there, but I think that I can serve as an example that way. But people are going to do it the way they do it each place. But you can run as a progressive and win. I mean, there’s no question about that – if you’re authentic about it, and I think that’s the most important component of that.

There’s a wide spectrum of postures and positions in the Democratic Party. In your time in Congress, has progressives’ leverage within the party been getting stronger or weaker?

I think probably it’s getting stronger. I mean, you look at what happened with Larry Summers. I think the president is paying increasing attention to what people are saying on trade agreements, on banking regulation, on healthcare. So I’m generally pretty optimistic.

I also know, though, that we made big gains in this country in 2009 and 2010. And each time there’s been sort of a burst of progressive energy in this country, whether it was during Wilson, or during Roosevelt’s first four years, or during the three years in the '60s, or Obama’s two years, this burst of progressive energy benefits the country for decades.

I mean, look at what we got out of Roosevelt’s time still for this country: from collective bargaining, to Social Security, to labor law, and much else. Or in the ‘60s with civil rights and Medicare and Medicaid and higher ed and all that. You know, we sometimes have to play defense to preserve the gains we’ve made.

And I think that’s the role of progressives here: to make sure that our party understands that these were some of the greatest things that the government’s ever done, in partnership with the trade union movement, in partnership with the environmental movement, in partnership with small business.

You literally wrote the book on "Myths of Free Trade." Has President Obama disappointed you in how he’s handled trade deals?

A bit. He’s been better than his predecessors at enforcing trade rules. Not good enough. We’ve got to do better at this. I’m hopeful.

I met yesterday with [US Trade Representative Michael Froman] about what I think [is] the new trade that works for our country. Clearly, trade policy’s not worked for us as a nation. It’s meant profits for companies that outsource, but it’s not worked for communities, for jobs, for manufacturing, for local small manufacturing especially. And so the answer of the elite in Washington is “let’s do more trade deals, let's do more of it,” when it’s not working. And I think Froman understands that. I think the president understands it. It doesn’t mean they’re as aggressive and forward-looking as I would like to be, but we’re always making that battle.

You’ve voted against or raised objections to what you’ve called “imprudent regulation.” In 2011, one Ohio group accused you of “putting the interests of manufacturing ahead of the Clean Air Act.” What’s your response to such criticism?

I have generally and will always fight for clean air and safe drinking water laws. I think there’s a balance with the whole issue of outsourcing and the environment. I understand that if you enter into a compact with a country, China manufactures something, sends it to the U.S., it doesn’t include the environmental cost -- the cost of making the product in a cleaner way. We can’t compete with that, and that’s bad for the environment. So I will always say if they’re going to come into our market, they’ve got to live up to the same rules we do. I don’t want to weaken our rules, I want to strengthen theirs.

And you know, some haven’t seen it that way. I think they’re wrong. I think that’s the best answer on climate change and the best answer for manufacturing.

How are you selling the Affordable Care Act in Ohio? What could the president do to sell it better?

This doesn’t always work with people, but I think you go back 48 years, when Medicare was signed into law, and it had the same kind of opposition. It was the John Birch Society, now it’s the Tea Party. Same sort of thing. Insurance companies, doctors, didn’t like it. But in five years, people knew that it really worked for the country. And I think that we will get through this.

We’ve never had such an active opposition to a new law that I can think of. Maybe in the South with civil rights, but with something like this, we’ve never seen this kind of concerted opposition to try to make it fail. But I do think it’s analogous to Medicare: There was a lot of opposition, and then people were satisfied pretty quickly. I think we’ll look back in five or 10 years and say, what was the big deal? This is working.

The other thing I think we need to talk about more is what’s already accomplished. And things like preexisting condition [protections] that the Republicans want to take away. They don’t really have anything other than to say, “Well, we like those.” Well, are you for the law or not? And I don’t think we’ve engaged enough.

I also think that it’s a full-time job for a number of Republicans to just do everything they can to vilify and emasculate this healthcare act.

On several issues you’ve taken on – Social Security cuts, trade deals, federal contractors’ labor standards – there’s a gap between you and the president. Why do you think he’s touted chained CPI, continued the trade approach he has, and chosen not to implement higher-road contracting?

I don’t know. I don’t have an opinion on why he’s not done things I want him to do. I mean he’s elected, he ran on a platform, he was elected on that platform. It’s his call.

It’s his call who he appoints to the Fed, it’s his call what he enforces, what he does on the environment, what he does on labor standards, what he does on trade. I’m generally happy with the direction of most of that. I will always encourage him to do more.

So more trade enforcement, better trade deals, better labor laws, higher minimum wage, don’t make Social Security about cutting the cost of living index when it should go the other way in terms of a better reflection of what seniors spend. Those are important. But it’s up to me to build public opinion, and get the president there.

The coming fights over the debt ceiling and the budget – what do you expect to happen? Are you concerned we’ll end up with deeper cuts?

I don’t know what’s going to happen. I’m just concerned what happens to this country when these people do what’s never been done before in the name of their political agenda, put such risk on the American public.

I just find it curious too that for three years, in ‘09, ‘10 and ’11, I hear Republicans all of the time saying that the Democrats are creating so much uncertainty in the economy with all their new ideas and new laws and new regulations, and that the most important thing is a more predictable business climate. And you know, they’re sort of the king and queen of uncertainty, in terms of just continuing to force us to lurch from crisis to crisis. It’s just immoral what they’re doing -- fighting over if you don’t do Keystone, or you don’t privatize Medicare or Social Security, if you don’t rescind Obamacare we’re not going to do what we ought to do. It never happened ‘til this crowd came in.

Given who’s in Congress now, what if anything positive could happen there between now and the midterm elections?

Well, there are a lot of smaller things we can do. I met yesterday with the head of FDA to talk about e-cigarettes and what we’re doing on trade. Tobacco companies have too much influence in our trade policy, and what are we doing on these candy-flavored cigarettes. And with tobacco companies wanting to stay a step ahead of the sheriff by slightly changing their cancer sticks in a way that cannot be classified as cigarettes and get weaker rules, and all of those things.

My legislation with [GOP Sen. David] Vitter I think was a bit of a spark to get the Fed and FDIC to begin to do more of the right thing on capital standards. So all of that has an impact.

I’m never one to say you can’t get stuff done. I’m one to say you sometimes play defense and you stop them from weakening labor law and repealing environmental rules. I mean, there are things the president can do and we can do, on the offensive and the defensive.

Given the death of the Employee Free Choice Act, do you think there will be any progress through federal legislation on labor law?

No, I don’t think there is any progress legislatively because the Republicans won’t do anything.

But if the Republicans really want a free trade agreement for their corporate outsourcers, that comes at a price: You’ve got to treat workers right, you’ve got to do something for the environment, and you’ve got to deal with currency and some of the other things. That’s our opportunity that we’ll look for, but they’re not going to pass straight-up any kind of assistance for workers.

What’s going to happen to the immigration bill?

I don’t have any idea what happens on immigration. I don’t know how these people think in the House, what motivates them to be so destructive: farm bill. Immigration bill. Budget. Everything.

By Josh Eidelson

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