The day has arrived in the Democratic Party when Sherrod Brown is a kind of moderate.
The impeccably progressive Ohio senator who has occupied a spot on the left flank of the Democratic caucus for a very long time is declining to sign up for the fashionable radical causes of the hour.
Brown has not endorsed the Bernie Sanders “Medicare-for-all” plan that contemplates the end of private insurance in America, nor for the outlandishly expensive and eminently mockable Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez “Green New Deal.”
This marks Brown out from other Democratic senators running for president, who aren’t letting practicality or future worries about a general election keep them from putting their names to legislation that will never pass and opens them up to obvious attacks.
A variety of forces tether Brown to reality more than his colleagues. He’s been in elected politics his entire adult life, and although he’s been willing to go his own way — he voted against the Defense of Marriage Act in the 1990s when that wasn’t popular — he’s pragmatic enough not to get carried away with wild enthusiasms.
He’s managed to thrive in an increasingly red state. In 2016, Donald Trump handily won Ohio. The state is not Alabama, but it’s not New York or California either, where a Democrat can discount any need to appeal to culturally conservative voters.
Finally, Brown’s base is unions that have no patience for pie-in-the-sky environmental schemes that threaten their jobs, or radical schemes to overturn current health care arrangements when many of them have gold-plated plans they want to protect.
All of this means that Brown has the sense to steer clear of proposals that will almost certainly diminish a Democrat’s chances of beating Trump.
On paper, Brown looks like a strong general election candidate, and not just because he’s avoiding ridiculous excesses.
The natural play for Democrats in 2020 would be to nominate someone, like Brown, who has a good chance of winning back the Blue Wall states and therefore putting away the election (barring some unforeseen event that opens up Hillary states to Trump).
There’s little doubt that Brown would have won against Trump in 2016. He has a much stronger connection to working-class voters than Hillary Clinton, and never would have dismissed them or the Upper Midwest. He came up in politics hanging out in union halls, and warns against coastal condescension toward the Midwest.
Brown can claim some measure of vindication with the rise of Trump. It has moved the center of gravity of American politics in his direction. The senator was a voice in the wilderness on globalization, and now there’s a Republican president who makes much the same critiques and has largely brought his party around with him.
Brown’s economic populism is no longer an outlier. Instead, the point of contention is whether Trump or Brown represents the best version. Brown believes Democrats shouldn’t “shy away from populism because Marine Le Pen and Donald Trump and Steve Bannon get called ‘populists.’”
The question, at the same time, is whether the Democratic Party is leaving behind Brown’s style of politics. The left’s disdain for working-class whites has, if anything, grown over the first two years of the Trump presidency. And as Ron Brownstein pointed out in a recent analysis for CNN, noncollege whites are becoming a less important part of the Democratic Party, while the influence of college-educated and African-American women grows.
Like Bernie Sanders, Brown will have the disadvantage of being a white male more interested in class rather than racial politics, at a time when the most vocal part of the party’s base is obsessed with intersectionality.
Part of Brown’s calculation has to be that he can leave the crowded left-most lane in the primary to others. And, so, yes, it has come to this: In the inflamed, #resistance-driven contemporary Democratic Party, Sherrod Brown is a voice of relative moderation.
Rich Lowry can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.