Sherrod Brown will not be running for president. The Ohio Senator announced yesterday through surrogates that he was content with his role in the Senate and lacks the “consuming drive” to seek the highest office in the land. This announcement came as a shock on a number of levels. Brown hadn’t formally launched an exploratory committee, but he was engaged on a listening tour that took him through the early primary states of Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina, where he extolled his trademark “dignity of work” concept, a New Deal-esque mantra that sounds more like a slogan that would be taped to the side of Woody Guthrie’s guitar than headlining the campaign of a legislator with over forty years of government experience. But Brown was considered a serious 2020 contender even before he embarked on this journey, and many observers viewed his status as a Midwestern Democrat with labor union bona fides as the perfect antidote to Donald Trump’s populist appeal.
He looked like the perfect candidate for a party whose coalition was slowly moving further to the left, as well. Brown’s early opposition to the Defense of Marriage Act and the Iraq War scores him points with the party’s progressive wing, while his unapologetic support for liberal social causes makes him sympatico with younger and more diverse voters. His populist rhetoric may have been canceled out by fellow senators and 2020 hopefuls Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, but where blue collar voters may have seen in them an affluent academic on the one hand and Mercedes Marxist1Not to be “that guy,” but Sanders made approximately $1 million in 2016, according to a Newsweek report. on the other, in Brown, with his tousled grey hair and affinity for denim shirts, they may have seen a familiar, relatable figure more comfortable in the union hall than in the halls of power.
There were signs that Brown could win over more than just his party, as well. Brown appealed to those who wanted to see Democrats fight fire with fire in the next presidential election because of one issue he does tend to side with the president on: free trade. Trump may have become the most famous opponent of free trade since launching his presidential bid in 2015, but in 2004, Brown literally wrote the book on it. In Myths of Free Trade, he advocates for a number of policies that will sound familiar to anyone who’s acquainted themselves with Trump’s economic positions, including emergency tariffs and Buy American laws. He’s co-authored legislation that would officially declare China a currency manipulator, voiced his opposition to NAFTA, and even went as far as to praise Trump’s tariffs on washing machines.
Arguing that Brown being in tune with Trump on dismantling what’s seen as one of Bill Clinton’s2To be fair, NAFTA was negotiated by the George H.W. Bush administration. hallmark achievements makes him the ideal Democratic standard bearer may seem counter-intuitive. But the party is at an ideological fork in the road when it comes to trade. Despite her early support of it, Hillary Clinton came out against the Trans-Pacific Partnership during her 2016 campaign, and Warren and Sanders have already begun to try and walk the tightrope of agreeing with the President on the principles of his trade policy while disagreeing with his methods. Even the official 2016 Democratic Party Platform included a plank titled “Promoting Trade That Is Fair and Benefits American Workers,” which supports the “review [of] agreements negotiated years ago to update them” in order to protect “workers’ rights, labor standards, the environment, and public health,” and specifically states that such standards should be applied to the TPP. That’s a far cry from Trump’s calls to up and leave NAFTA, but it could be enough for candidates like Kamala Harris, Cory Booker, and Amy Klobuchar, who may have fallen closer to the center in regards to trade deals in the past, to move further to the left for fear of alienating the party’s progressive wing.
What’s more, Sherrod Brown’s protectionist streak seems to have worked for him in the Midterms. He became the last Democrat to win a major statewide office in Ohio, a reddening swing state that proved to be a bellwether for Trump’s victory in 2016, when he defeated Republican Jim Renacci by nearly seven percentage points in November. Granted, he actually underperformed his projected vote share, but he joined Jon Tester of Montana and Joe Manchin of West Virginia as the only Democratic incumbents to hold onto their seats in states where Trump received over 50 percent of the vote.
Ohio is the least Republican and went for Trump by the smallest margin of those three states, but that shouldn’t minimize Brown’s accomplishment. Tester was able to cast himself as a rugged, agrarian Montanan running against a wealthy East Coast carpetbagger whereas Manchin has voted more in line with Trump than any other Democratic Senator. Brown, on the other hand, ran as an unabashed progressive with strong union ties and working class appeal, and prevailed in a state where both the governor’s mansion and the House delegation were held by Republicans. If this populist approach worked in the Buckeye State, why wouldn’t it work in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, or Michigan — all of which barely went for Trump in 2016 — in 2020?
Unfortunately, we’ll never get the chance to test that hypothesis. And, in fairness, Brown was not without his baggage. Larke Recchie, his first wife, alleged in restraining orders filed during her and Brown’s divorce proceedings that she feared his “physical violence and abusive nature” and that he had “intimidated, pushed, bullied, and shoved her” during their marriage. Recchie would eventually walk back these claims, and even went on to film a campaign ad and host a fundraiser for Brown, but who knows what kind of sordid details a presidential campaign would dredge up, and what kind of pall they could cast over a campaign. And while Brown’s passionate stumping for universal healthcare and LGBTQ rights make him sound like a member of the more youthful, more progressive wing of the Democratic Party, he certainly doesn’t look like one. The 2018 midterms saw female and minority candidates make massive gains in the voting booth, and the Democrats may be wise to build on the momentum they gathered in November by nominating someone other than a gravel-voiced, 66-year old white guy. Our current political moment is being defined by the #MeToo Movement and Black Lives Matter, not the AFL-CIO and the Teamsters, and it may be in the Democrats’ best interests to try and energize a block of voters who stayed home in 2016 instead of winning over one that vociferously rejected them that same year.
It’s worth noting, of course, that the presumptive front-runner is a 76-year old white guy. Joe Biden is reportedly preparing to announce his 2020 bid in the coming months, and the former Vice President is sure to receive a lot of early attention in what’s already a crowded field. Brown made it very clear that Biden’s imminent run did not play a factor in his decision to stay out of the race, but it’s hard not to see his abstention, as well as that of Oregon Senator Jeff Merkley and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, as a concession that things may not be as wide open as they seemed six months ago. As the most recognizable name to throw his hat into the ring, Biden has a chance to grab a stranglehold of the polls and define the primary race on his own terms. Candidates like Warren, Sanders, and Harris have strong brands and passionate bases, sure, but their presidential bids have always felt like a foregone conclusion, and their narratives prefabricated and predictable. After the will-he-or-won’t-he drama of 2016, Biden’s entry into the race will feel like a much bigger splash, and the ripples could scare off any other would-be challengers not named Beto O’Rourke, who’s already popular and recognizable among Democrats and demonstrated during his unsuccessful Senate run that he is a fundraising machine. After a chaotic first few months where it seemed like everyone and their mother was lining up to take on Trump, the primary field has begun to settle, and, unfortunately for Brown, in the early days, he did a little too much listening, and not enough running.
Brown should be heartened by Biden’s political trajectory, however. After running two uninspiring campaigns in 1988 and 2008, the Senate veteran with working class roots found himself on Barack Obama’s presidential ticket, where he lent a sense of establishment credibility to a young upstart’s campaign. Brown could play a similar role in 2020. His appeal to white Midwesterners could balance out a ticket headlined by Harris or Booker, while his left wing street cred makes him a natural complement to centrists like Biden and John Hickenlooper. He made Hillary Clinton’s shortlist in 2016, and though he says he won’t take the role even if it’s offered to him, he’d be foolish not to. The Democratic primary seems to have settled for now, but who knows what shifts and surprises the upcoming decade will bring. If he plays his cards right, Brown could, like Biden, find himself on the fast track from also ran to favorite. Considering we’re still eleven months away from the Iowa caucuses, looking that far into the future feels vexing, burdensome, and counterproductive. But if this primary cycle has taught us anything so far, it’s that you can never start thinking about these things too early…