What Can Brown Do for the Democratic Party?

Assuming, improbably as it may seem now, that Donald Trump survives and runs for a second term (hey, stranger things have happened), who will Democrats embrace as their post-Barack Obama, post-Hillary Clinton champion?

It’s not too early to speculate: the 2020 Democratic presidential primary will be here before you know it, and we could once again bear witness to a street fight between the party’s “establishment” and “progressive” wings. Of course, it’s just as likely that Democrats will decide to avoid a divisive primary by uniting around a consensus candidate.

If he chooses to run–and if he survives a right-wing effort to deny him a third term next year–one wonders if Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown will be embraced as the individual to unite the Democratic Party’s various factions. History has proven that a divided Democratic Party is ripe for the pickings–and if party members are brawling amongst themselves again, the White House will stay in Republican hands.

Last year around this time, I speculated that Clinton would select Brown as her running mate. I noted:

Brown is Bernie without the bombast, a bold progressive voice who understands that the Democratic Party has always stood for the interests of the disenfranchised, disparaged and downtrodden; like Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, he can articulate the woes and frustrations of the put-upon middle class, and coherently explain how progressive policies can redress those grievances. The selection of Brown could accomplish two mutually important goals for Clinton: he could appeal to the more rational members of Sanders’s fan club while also attracting support from working-class voters who might respond to populist appeals, but who haven’t swallowed the last drop of Donald Trump’s Kool-Aid.

Brown nailed the difference between earnest and ersatz populism in a USA Today op-ed earlier this month:

Populism doesn’t preach hate. Populism preaches hope — hope that all workers will have the opportunity to build better lives for their families. I hear that same hope all over Ohio, from the young, diverse workers at a software company outside of Cleveland, to coal country, where people aren’t willing to give up on their hometowns.

I heard it in Cincinnati, where I met with janitors who had just signed their first union contract. One woman told me this was the first time in her 30 years of working she would be able to take a one-week paid vacation.

A true populist looks out for people like her, because populism values work and it respects the people who do it — every last one of them. Our society doesn’t value work the way we once did; Americans work harder and have less to show for it.

If you want to call yourself a populist, you better be ready to stick up for the little guy — whether she punches a time clock or earns tips. Whether she works in a call center or a hospital or on a factory floor. Whether he is a contract worker or a temp.

And you better be willing to be straight with the people you serve. A true populist tells the truth, because she respects people’s intelligence.

Of course we’ve always had cynical politicians. They — and the media that cover them too — often confuse popularity with populism. Populism and popularity may share the same Latin root, but not the same political home. An opportunist politician divides people and kowtows to the powerful. He spreads blame instead of solutions, and lies about bringing back an idyllic past that never was. And he often treats those with less power and privilege with disdain.

Yes, Bill Maher has called upon Senator Sanders to do it again like Steely Dan three years from now, but Maher must know that Sanders would likely run into the same demographic problems he ran into the last time around. Brown can, at least in theory, appeal to Democrats who think Sanders lays it on a little thick. In addition, Brown is actually a Democrat: Sanders’s refusal to actually join the party was clearly held against him the last time around, and he’d likely suffer the same fate in 2020.

Would Brown do a better job of uniting the party than, say, Senator Elizabeth Warren? Not necessarily, but Brown would, in all likelihood, be a stronger general-election candidate than Warren. The right cannot smear Brown as a coastal elitist, as they’ve (unfortunately but successfully) smeared Warren for years. Right-wing media entities also know that all they have to do is rehash the false allegations that led to Donald Trump’s “Pocahontas” slur and working-class white voters will stay in the Republican fold.

What can the right use against Brown? It can be argued that Brown, like Obama in 2008, is impervious to right-wing political attacks. All the smears in the world could not prevent Brown from connecting to working-class voters; all the innuendo in the world could not drive a wedge between Brown and the party’s progressive base. When the kryptonite doesn’t work, how exactly do you stop Superman?

Back in 2006, when Deval Patrick ran for governor of Massachusetts, one of his campaign ads featured a gentleman who noted that when Patrick spoke, “you can hear the justice in his voice.” The same could be said for Brown: it’s hard to think of any American politician who is so eloquent in his description of the shackles holding back the working class, the pain of frustrated dreams, the need for efficient and effective government to remedy what ails our society and, above all, the profound immorality of the conservative agenda.

He may not run. He may decide that pursuing justice is a more worthwhile goal in the Senate. However, if he runs, Brown might be able to bring “establishment” and “progressive” Democrats together at the same time the Republican Party falls apart.

D.R. Tucker

D. R. Tucker is a Massachusetts-based journalist who has served as the weekend contributor for the Washington Monthly since May 2014. He has also written for the Huffington Post, the Washington Spectator, the Metrowest Daily News, investigative journalist Brad Friedman's Brad Blog and environmental journalist Peter Sinclair's Climate Crocks.