Populist Democrat Sherrod Brown might be a big threat to Trump in 2020 – but he has no 'real interest' in running

Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio holds an unusual distinction in the 2018 midterm campaign for Congress. He is a Democrat seeking re-election in a state President Donald Trump carried easily two years ago. But unlike several colleagues in the same situation, the raspy-voiced populist has moved far ahead of Republican challenger Jim Renacci in polls assessing his bid for a third term.

If Brown wins and Democrats manage to recapture the Senate, Brown stands to chair the Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee — a worrisome prospect for Wall Street.

Brown's success has placed him squarely in early speculation about Democrats who may seek the presidency in 2020. More than most politicians in his party, he has shown broad appeal among working-class voters – including the blue-collar whites who represent Trump's political base. That's not merely a matter of personality. Brown sides with Trump's combative posture on trade, backing the president's decision to withdraw from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, rewrite the North American Free Trade Agreement and confront China with tariffs.

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An avid baseball fan, Brown sat down with me last week at the stadium in Columbus that is home to the AAA farm team for the Cleveland Indians. In an interview that followed the mailing of pipe bombs to prominent Democrats but preceded the mass shooting in a Pittsburgh synagogue, we discussed the nation's political climate, the Democratic economic agenda, his sometime-partnership with the president, and the possibility that he might soon challenge Trump for the White House. What follows is a condensed, edited transcript of our conversation.

Sherrod Brown: Welcome to Columbus, and Huntington Stadium.

John Harwood: You're a big baseball guy. Give me your No. 1 moment as a player, and your No. 1 moment as a fan.

Brown: My No. 1 moment as a player was pitching two no-hitters in a row in Little League.

Harwood: You were the Johnny Vander Meer …

Brown: Johnny Vander Meer; two in a row. That's right, yeah. This guy knows baseball. Well done. An Ohio team.

As a fan it had to be the 2016 World Series with Connie and my children, my daughters. We'd started going to games when the Indians really weren't very good. And when Rajai Davis hit a two-run homer I was thrilled. Cleveland came back and tied it.

Harwood: That was the rain delay game.

Brown: Then the rain delay came and the world went to hell. The Indians lost in extra innings, and Hillary lost the election the same week. Oh, well.

Harwood: Several of your colleagues in states that President Trump won comfortably are in trouble this election year. You're in one of those states, but you're not in trouble. Explain that.

Brown: I don't look at voters as Trump voters or Clinton voters. I don't look at workers as white workers or black workers. I talk about workers. In the end, it's whose side are you on. I urge my colleagues always, if there are Democratic majorities, whenever there are, that we really do focus on the dignity of work.

That is making sure that people who get up every day, work hard, play by the rules, have a decent standard of living. That their wages go up, that their health-care benefits are adequate, that they have some retirement, and that we have to make sure we keep health-care costs down.

There's no interest in doing that in Washington. Now, their interest is more tax cuts for the rich, more cuts in Medicare. I mean, McConnell's comments in the last couple of weeks — where three-quarters of the dollars went to the richest 1 percent (and) the way we pay for that is to cut Medicare and Social Security or raise the eligibility age — that's morally reprehensible, and it's bad economics, and they all should be ashamed of themselves for that.

Harwood: Now, one thing that distinguishes you from your Democratic colleagues is that you have affirmatively worked with Trump on a major policy issue. You support his tariffs. Every recent president in both parties, and every economist that I talk to, have said that tariff policies make no sense economically. That they cost more jobs than they save. Why are you with him?

Brown: Well, respectfully, you need to talk to a wider swath of economists. I think you've got to spool back. And economists don't do this because economists often have a pretty cloistered existence in their lives. You've got to think how we got here. And if you drive through the industrial Midwest, and in the central valley of California, too, you will see example after example of how a company shut down production in Mansfield, my hometown, or Toledo or Dayton, moved overseas, built a plant there and collected a tax break to do it. Because our tax and trade policy has played into that for decades. And no president was willing to address it.

Tariffs are a temporary enforcement tool. They're not a long-term trade policy. I would've done it differently from the president. I would not have called it a trade war. I would've explained to the American public what in fact he was doing for the end outcome — to deal with Chinese cheating, basically.

I would've aimed our tariffs not at our allies — Canada and Western Europe — and would have worked with those allies to figure out how you stop Chinese, longtime serial cheating.

Harwood: But isn't the lesson of the modern world continuously in one direction — that is, toward the freer movement of people and capital? And aren't you basically trying to make water flow uphill by interfering with the laws of economics on that?

Brown: Well, the laws of economics haven't worked for much of this country in terms of working-class people, regardless of race. It's easy for a professor to preach that. It's maybe even a little fun for the media to echo that. But the fact is that …

Harwood: Bill Clinton and Barack Obama share your values.

Brown: They were wrong. They share my values. I share their values. They were wrong on trade.

Harwood: When you have presidents from both parties — one fundamentally close to business, the other close to labor — it tells me they see that for the nation as a whole, expanded trade is good.

Brown: If presidents of each party are in the same place, does that justify the Vietnam War? I don't think because presidents in both parties were in the same place, that makes it good policy. You think trade has nothing to do with the fact that the 1 percent are getting richer and richer and richer?

In this country, you're seeing profits go up. You're seeing executive compensation go up sharply. You're seeing productivity go up. And wages are flat. A big part of the reason wages are flat is because we have not done globalization well. We've not taken care of people who have lost their jobs. We have not fought for labor rights and environmental rights.

I wear this pin. It's a depiction of a canary in a birdcage. It was given to me at a Workers Memorial Day. It symbolizes the mine worker in the canary. But it symbolizes the role of government to help middle-class people and create and build a middle class.

Harwood: Let me ask you about the word "socialism" in our politics. The White House just put out a report the other day attacking socialism, and linking Democrats and Democratic proposals to socialism. Is it a dirty word?

Brown: It's a political calculation that's poll-tested by Karl Rove and whoever is the new Karl Rove in the Republican Party. It's pretty meaningless in terms of the way we do our jobs. I want government on the side of the public. I want government to respect the dignity of work and advocate for workers. I don't really care about labels.

Harwood: You're not scared of that word?

Brown: No, I'm not. I don't think voters think about that stuff.

Harwood: Is Medicare-for-all socialism?

Brown: No. I think the better way to do health care is to allow — and I've worked on this for years — Medicare buy-in at 55. That was part of the Affordable Care Act until we fell short of the 60 votes.

Look who is most vulnerable in health care. It's a 58- or a 61-year-old man or woman in Dayton who has lost her job because her plant closed. She's 58. She can't find insurance. And it's a point in her life when her health's getting bad, especially if she worked construction or in a factory or worked in a diner or worked in a hair salon and was on her feet all day. That's when they need Medicare.

Harwood: Is that still what you're for? Not Medicare for all?

Brown: I don't oppose Medicare for all. I've not co-sponsored Medicare for all because I don't think we get there now. I think what we do is Medicare at 55. It's voluntary. It's a buy-in. You can do it, fiscally responsibly, and give that 58-year-old, laid-off woman in Zanesville, Ohio, a chance to buy in to Medicare at a reasonable price at that age.

Harwood: The reason I asked the question about socialism is there does seem to have been a shift in the Democratic debate. When Obama was president, one of his aides told me "we weren't allowed to use the word 'redistribution'" — even though things like Obamacare did redistribute money from people who paid taxes for it to people who got benefits. You, Sen. Harris and others have proposed major redistribution of money to people through the earned income tax credit or other vehicles. Is that something that you see as now politically salable?

Brown: I always have. I mean, the real masters at redistribution are Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan, who redistribute income up. That's what they do.

Harwood: Understood. But it has proven easier to do that by cutting someone's taxes than by having government write a check to someone. That's just been the political reality.

Brown: That's their political reality. I'm surprised you buy into it, John.

Harwood: No, what I'm saying is that has proven more politically achievable.

Brown: It's politically achievable because Washington is rigged. Washington can always pass a tax cut for rich people because, who are most members of Congress? Many, many, many of them are millionaires. Who are most of the lobbyists?

As you may know, John, there aren't a lot of people walking around the halls of Congress that are advocating for workers at the local diner in Garfield Heights. They're advocating for the big power companies and the big drug companies and Wall Street.

Harwood: Do you think the table is set, politically, for Democrats to embrace in a full-throated way that kind of redistribution?

Brown: I hope so. You use the word redistribution. To me, it's fairness. People that work in a diner, people that cut hair, people that work construction, they work every bit as hard as you do and I do. And they get so little to show for it, and they have a government that's not on their side so often.

I don't call that redistribution, I call it justice. I call it fairness. It's what our government should be.

Harwood: Sen. Warren has a proposal to do that more indirectly by requiring, as a condition of corporate charter, worker representation on corporate boards, which would not require government outlays. What do you think of that idea?

Brown: That's fine. I support anything that gets us there. I also have a bill called the Freeloader Fee Act that says when a company — not a diner with 30 or 40 employees, but a big company of over X-number of people — pays so little that their workers are eligible for Medicaid, food stamps, housing vouchers and earned income tax credit, that they should pay a freeloader fee.

They should reimburse taxpayers for their low wages. Their executives are making $6 million, $8 million, $10 million a year, their workers are paid so little that government subsidizes their workers. Those companies should have to pay a penalty for that.

Harwood: Your election is in a little over a week. Immediately, there's going to be a lot of talk and action toward the 2020 race. Sen. Warren says she's going to take a hard look at it after the election. Seems clear she's going to run. What is your thinking on that issue?

Brown: I'm thinking that Sen. Warren's probably going to run. Is that your question?

Harwood: Are you thinking that Sen. Brown's going to run?

Brown: I don't like the idea of running for president. I don't really have any real interest in that.

Harwood: But I saw that you said to one of your home state newspapers you think about it from time to time, and you get people talking to you about it.

Brown: No news on this story, sorry. I don't aspire to be president of the United States. I know my name's mentioned because I win in a Trump state.

Here's what I hope comes out of this election. First of all, I hope to win. Second, I hope that Rich Cordray, who would be a really good governor, wins in the Democratic ticket.

And third, I hope the message that I win with – the dignity of work and whose side are you on – gets into the national debate. Because plenty of my colleagues want to be president a lot more than I do.