A Conversation with Sherrod Brown

Susan Walsh/AP Photo

Senator Sherrod Brown speaks during a Senate Finance Committee hearing.

Senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio disappointed many Democrats when he announced in March that he would not be a candidate for president. Brown was re-elected to the Senate last November in a race where other Democrats running statewide in Ohio were defeated. He is especially effective at reaching working class voters based on pocketbook issues—voters who are otherwise attracted to rightwing racist nationalists. Yet Brown does so without sacrificing leadership on progressive social issues.

Though he is not running for president, his voice is an important one. We were curious to explore how he might continue to exercise influence in the campaign. Sherrod Brown spoke with Prospect co-editor Robert Kuttner.

Robert Kuttner: In the upcoming campaign, how do we make Donald Trump vulnerable for having failed to deliver for the kind of people who voted for him? You must have a lot of insights on that from Ohio. 

Sherrod Brown: Let’s start with this. Trump has betrayed workers. He has not stood up for workers at Lordstown. He has not stood up for workers on taxes. His proudest accomplishment is tax reform that gives a 50% off coupon to companies that move jobs overseas. He’s said he will fight for keeping jobs in this country, but he’s done nothing. Unemployment is still relatively low, but wages are flat. Far too many people have to have two jobs.

RK: How do you gain traction on those issues? You know the facts and I know the facts, but far too many Trump supporters don’t seem to conclude that they shouldn’t vote for Trump again. 

SB: I think you use the word betrayal, repeatedly. He has betrayed American workers. And then you give examples. I do it by talking about the White House looking like a retreat for Wall Street executives, except on the days when it looks like a retreat for drug company executives. He’s consistently betrayed workers, he’s consistently betrayed consumers. You contrast that with what we’ve done and what we’ve proposed, and I think it moves enough Trump voters that we carry states like Ohio.

RK: Given that you’re not in the race, can you have some influence in persuading other candidates and the eventual nominee to talk as credibly as you do on these issues? 

SB: When we set out on our Dignity of Work Tour, we went to four states and talked about the dignity of work. Joe Biden used that term a number of times. You’ve heard Kamala Harris use it, you’ve heard Elizabeth Warren use it. This is becoming a Democratic theme. That means respecting work—whether you punch a clock or swipe a badge, whether you’re working on a salary or working for tips, whether you’re taking care of an aging parent or raising children yourself. It’s all workers and all races and both genders.

Talk about promoting the dignity of work. Talk about respecting and honoring work. Going into communities and talking about being on the side of workers, whether it’s helping in a union organizing campaign, advocating for middle class workers or the earned income tax credit and putting money in the pockets of workers. I think you make that contrast, and campaign through the eyes of workers by talking about the dignity of work. But it’s way more than a message, it’s the way to govern. I think if you do that for the next year, any or all of these candidates, it will be clear who’s on the side of workers in the end.

RK: Let me ask you about trade. I have heard some of our union friends say that Trump has actually delivered more on revising NAFTA than a lot of Democratic administrations did. I’ve heard people say that Robert Lighthizer—not Trump, but Lighthizer—is better on our issues than any recent U.S. trade rep. How do you gain traction on trade without making Trump the good guy?

SB: Well, Trump hasn’t really delivered anything on trade. His trade rep, Lighthizer, has been more open than trade reps in the past, has said more of the right things, but in the end this administration will not move on labor, on labor enforcement rules in the language of trade deals. And without labor enforcement, these trade agreements don’t mean that workers do better in our country or in their country. Mexico’s labor law is better than what it used to be, but it doesn’t have the labor enforcement provisions it needs.

We have made proposals to Lighthizer for months and months and months on this, and they’ve not moved. The winds are blowing in all directions on trade. There are some people in the Trump White House who are very much free traders. Other people like Peter Navarro are saying all the right things, but the administration has not moved fundamentally on making these trade agreements better. USMCA [Trump’s U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement] is a slight improvement. It still does too much for the oil and gas industry. It still does too much for the drug industry. It doesn’t lift workers up in in any of the three countries well enough. It doesn’t address environmental issues. It doesn’t address access to medicine.

He talked a good game about trade, but Lordstown has lost 4,500 jobs since Trump was elected. A trucking company in Mahoning Valley announced they were closing by email, telling 400-some workers that they were shutting down. So clearly Trump hasn’t delivered. He went to Mahoning Valley maybe a year ago and said, “Don’t sell your homes, these jobs are coming back.” There is no sign of that in my state and throughout most of the industrial heartland. 

RK: Let me ask you about manufacturing and particularly about China. In Ohio, there’s a major offshore wind project. Toledo was going to be a center of solar. But the Chinese— because we let them—muscled in on these technologies by producing below cost, and now our renewable energy industries use wind turbines and solar panels made by the Chinese. How do you unwind that, both in the context of a Green New deal and in the context of U.S. manufacturing generally, so that we make—as well as use—renewable energy technology? 

SB: Well, the first thing you don’t do is pull out of the Paris Climate Agreement. Second, you insist on American steel in these projects. Third, you don’t allow the Chinese to take the lead, which Trump apparently has done. And fourth, you don’t attack wind turbines the way Trump has done, saying they cause cancer. He’s clearly doing the oil industry’s bidding here, where he’s so critical of clean energy. So again, on every one of these answers, Bob, you really have to talk about where Trump has fallen short and what we stand for. Ohio has more solar production in Toledo than almost any city in the country. I doubt if Trump even knows that.

RK: Let’s go back to manufacturing generally. There’s a lot of chatter about how the problem is not China, the problem is automation. If we were serious about using infrastructure and other strategies, such as industrial policies, to reestablish the United States as a manufacturing center, are there serious numbers of jobs there if we had the right policies?

SB: Of course there are. We’ll always have manufacturing. I understand that there’s this steel mill in Cleveland, seven and a half, eight miles from my house. They’re the first steel mill in the world to make raw steel, to have one person an hour produce one ton of steel. They’re that efficient.

RK: That’s impressive, and also scary.

SB: That plant, when you walk through it, you don’t see a lot of employees. There are hundreds and hundreds that work there, but it’s a huge plant and they are so efficient. So of course automation and efficiency makes for fewer jobs per ton or pound or unit of production. But trade policy has accelerated that. You don’t blame it on either automation or trade; it’s both. And automation is what drives the economy, and efficiency, I get that, but we’ve also written tax policy and trade policy that undercut industry.

RK: Let me shift gears. We now have what certainly looks like a constitutional crisis of the Mueller report being in and Trump deciding to totally stonewall Congress.  And of course, we increasingly have captive courts. How do you think this is going to play out? Is Congress going to be able to investigate what it needs to investigate or is he going to just stonewall indefinitely?

SB: I think that Congress will insist on continuing to investigate. I agree with Speaker Pelosi that the next step is aggressive pursuit of these investigations and hearings. I think Mueller should testify. I appreciate what [House Judiciary Chair Jerry] Nadler is doing, and I assume Democratic leadership is doing with Barr, to insist that he testify. I’m about a third of the way through reading the Mueller report, and Barr just didn’t tell the truth. He’s really more of a PR flack for the president than he is representative lawyer for the United States of America.

I do subscribe, though, to the theory that the best way to get rid of Trump is to beat him in 2020. But I think the investigation should be as aggressive as possible, as broad and deep as they need to be, and it could lead to who knows what. We can’t afford to lose folks in the fact that a foreign government attacked our elections, and it seems like every page I turn in this report as I read it is more about how the Trump people knew it, the Trump people never discouraged it, the Trump people reached out to them and they clearly were effective in influencing this election.

RK: What happens if he continues defying these subpoenas and it eventually goes to the courts, and the courts are friendly to Trump? 

SB: I don’t know. I’m not a lawyer, I don’t know what happens. But I just think the number of investigative reporters in this country will help Congress find things out, although of course it would be a more successful, quicker investigation if the president didn’t fight everything. But I think the truth will come out on this eventually, regardless of the president’s cooperation.

RK: Is the Green New Deal a viable concept and a viable slogan, or has it been muddled by some versions of it that include everything but the kitchen sink. How do you think about a Green New Deal as a unifying concept?

SB: I’ve never bought in to “you can either have jobs or you can have good environment.” I look at Toledo, and what it does with solar. I really do look at so much of what we need to do to deal with climate change, that will produce jobs. I think that there will be a Green New Deal coming out of the Democrats, I assume from the presidential candidate, or as a party we do this, and it will be sooner rather than later. It may not be the Markey bill, but it will be aggressive and it will be comprehensive.

RK: Let me ask you about race in the campaign. Elizabeth Warren has been particularly good at this. The pocketbook issues disproportionally hit black people and bridge over the risk of identity politics coming to the fore and the whole Democratic Party falling into the Bannon-trap of using racial nationalism. How can we get the pocketbook issues with which you are so identified to be front-and-center so that the divisions over how to think about race do not become disabling?

SB: Thank you for that question. You don’t look at it as a choice between talking about all these issues like reproductive choice and guns and marriage equality and race, or you run talking to workers. It is absolutely a false choice. You talk about workers regardless of race, understanding always that whatever challenges white workers have, women and people of color have greater choice burdens and challenges in the workplace. And you acknowledge that.

You never compromise on your progressive views, but if you talk to workers and honor and respect their work, you will push for an expansion of the earned income tax credit, the child tax credit, as we’re doing, you pass trade policies that help moderate income workers, you write a tax bill overall that supports people in the bottom half or the bottom two thirds, you answer a lot of these questions. It’s been presented too often by too many candidates as an either-or. If you campaign on the whole idea of dignity of work and you govern that way, you’ve answered a lot of this. But again, whether it’s housing, job discrimination, wages or working conditions, people of color and women almost always have more challenges, and we always should acknowledge that. 

This interview has been edited for publication.

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