The missing throwback

The Democratic presidential primary field is filling up. But there will be one unfortunate absence in the race to be the party’s 2020 nominee: Senator Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), who took himself out of the running last week. That’s a shame, because Brown’s prospective candidacy almost uniquely could have helped the party hone the balance it gives to economic vs. social/identity issues.

Before Brown announced he would not run, George Packer wrote an insightful profile of him in The Altantic. Packer calls Brown a “throwback Democrat” who “wants to return to a period when the American middle class was strong and secure, and its champion was the Democratic Party.” Brown is a bonafide Rust Belt (though he hates that term) populist. He’s an ardent free trade skeptic who talks about the dignity of work, and has proposed a universal child benefit for all American families.

The Democratic Party has moved toward Brown on economic policy. Yet Brown’s style remains distinctive, as he is careful to let his economic positions occupy the center of his political cause, while somewhat muting his social beliefs. As Packer describes Brown’s approach:

His social views are in step with his party. He is pro-choice in a socially conservative state; in 1996 he voted against the Defense of Marriage Act, which many Democrats supported; he recently called President Donald Trump a racist on national television. Yet he manages to be a die-hard liberal without giving the impression that he intends to upend tradition or challenge the virtue of anyone who disagrees with him. His concern for people who do hard, underpaid work is so evident that some of them might overlook positions of his that they abhor.

Progressives have spent a good deal of time since the 2016 election debating whether the election of Donald Trump was about racial and cultural anxiety or about economic insecurity. Brown’s candidacy would have weighed in on that debate. While he holds clear progressive social views, he is inclined to sublimate those positions for the sake of uniting a broader coalition around economic populism. It’s a strategy of crafting a big tent — of winning the benefit of the doubt, and the vote, from those Americans who have common economic interests but split ways with Democrats on social issues.

In some ways, it’s reminiscent of the politics of Barack Obama. On social and cultural issues, Obama’s instinctive style was to acknowledge the good-faith values and concerns at stake on both sides of a debate, and then ultimately side with the liberal position. He didn’t dodge these questions so much as seek conciliation. But that first part — acknowledgement — had the effect of building a bridge to those on the other side of cultural divides and kept them engaged so that even if they didn’t agree with Obama on everything, they felt enough common cause to back him at the polls.

Over the last two presidential elections, Democrats won in 2012 when economic divides were at the center, and Republicans won in 2016 when cultural divides were the focus. The “big tent” approach of Obama and Brown, of quieting the culture wars for the sake of honing in on class and economic issues, deserves a hearing in 2020. But of course, there’s a question of whether the 2020 Democratic primary electorate would tolerate such a strategy. Obama was allowed some room to equivocate because of his historic candidacy — he himself was a racial and cultural issue. Twelve years removed from 2008, it’s far from clear how a white candidate who didn’t full-throatedly trumpet progressive social causes would be greeted by the Democratic grassroots.

As Packer puts it:

Nothing would test the proposition that the Democratic Party can regain its old working-class base like a presidential candidacy of Sherrod Brown. He has a strong record on issues of race and gender, but you’re less likely to hear him speak of patriarchy and white supremacy, let alone intersectionality, than of justice, equality, and dignity for all people. It’s a real question whether this will make him acceptable to progressive activists today.

That question will go unanswered, as Brown sits out the 2020 cycle. But strategically, Democrats ought to think about exactly where their bridge to large portions of the country has deteriorated. Voters who aren’t bought in wholesale to the progressive movement decide elections, and those voters are at risk of tuning out the party entirely if they believe its paramount focus is not on economic needs, but on fighting over bathroom access and chiding people to check their privilege. Social dignity matters of course, but it’s far more likely to prevail politically if progressives center a message of economic dignity first.

Democrats must be wise about their litmus tests. There’s value in revisiting the party’s old traditions embodied in a throwback like Brown.

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