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WHEN: Thursday, November 1st
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. 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. A partial transcript from Speakeasy with John Harwood featuring Senator Sherrod Brown follows.
All references must be sourced to CNBC.com.
Sherrod Brown: Welcome to Columbus, and Huntington Stadium.
John Harwood: You're a big baseball guy. Give me your number one moment as a player, and your number one moment as a fan.
Brown: My number one 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.
BROWN ON THE POLITICAL CLIMATE IN THE U.S.
John Harwood: We've had this spate of now a dozen potentially explosive devices mailed to people in politics. What do you make of that? I was with your longtime colleague in Ohio politics, John Kasich, yesterday. And he was putting some of the blame on President Trump for things he's said. Do you see it that way or how do you feel?
Sherrod Brown: I don't want to point fingers. I have a debate tonight with my opponent. And I will ask him to join me in asking the president to try to unify the country. I remember when President Bush, with whom I vehemently disagreed on trade policy, on tax cuts for the rich, on the Iraq War – I remember President Bush right after Sept. 11 went to a mosque because he wanted to unify the country. And I wish this president would stop the divisive rhetoric. And I wish this president would respect your profession. And I'm not saying that because I'm sitting with someone from your profession.
Harwood: You might be married to someone from that profession.
Brown: I am also married to a journalist. But long before that, I never believed that the media were the enemy of the people, or that they don't play an important role. In fact, if anything, the media's role in keeping politicians and business honest has fallen back because there aren't enough reporters at the statehouse in Columbus or at the Capitol in Washington. There are not enough investigative reporters nosing around on Wall Street or at capitals. That, to me, is the biggest shortcoming of the media. Not that in any way, they're enemies of the people, but there are not enough of them. The big media companies are making money, but they're not hiring reporters and they're not paying them well. And they're not hiring investigators to do what needs to be done to keep our democracy strong and vibrant.
Harwood: You hear a lot of pessimism these days about the state of our democracy and the political debate. Are you pessimistic, or not?
Brown: I'm really never pessimistic. I think this is a troubled time. I think this president has added to the divisions – I mean, we were a divided country before Donald Trump, but he's made it much, much worse. We have one network that doesn't really believe in truth-telling, frankly. And the narrative that the number of people that still believe Barack Obama wasn't born in this country, or the number of people that think John McCain wasn't a hero as we've heard from some voter who have said because he left Vietnam and used his father's connections, when it was exactly the opposite – that comes from a news organization that has put out those untruths. My biggest concern for the country is how we govern. My biggest long-term concern is, first, climate change and this government now, the leadership in Washington – the Republican leadership has simply failed to acknowledge it. That worries me. I'm worried about the long-term impact on the judiciary, of young, very far-right, very much out-of-the-mainstream judges from district court all the way up to the Supreme Court. And I'm worried about the fact that it's hard to govern when a quarter of the country gets its news from a source that's not really news. And so, we've got to figure that out as a nation.
BROWN ON DRUG PRICING
John Harwood: Did you see what the administration announced yesterday about Medicare changing drug reimbursement rates? Is that a good thing? Will it make a big difference?
Sherrod Brown: Small step. No.
Harwood: Not a big step?
Brown: It's a small step. The president called it revolutionary with his hyperbole – no surprise. It is not that. It's a good step. We need to do a lot, lot more. But fundamentally, the White House looks like a retreat for drug company executives. They made this step. Drug companies don't really like it. But if that's all they have to accept, they will be pretty happy. There are things we should do. Drug companies shouldn't be allowed to deduct the cost of advertising. Drug companies — we should negotiate the way we do with the VA. It works for veterans. We should serve those who serve us better, and we're doing it at least on drug pricing. We're not doing it on Agent Orange and some other things. But we're doing it on drug prices where the VA negotiates directly with the drug companies to bring prices down. We should do that with Medicare. We should do that with prescription drugs, generally.
BROWN ON REGULATING WALL STREET
John Harwood: If you guys win the Senate, you'll be the chairman of the Banking Committee. Even if you don't win the Senate, a potential Democratic takeover of the House would give you more leverage as the ranking member of the Banking Committee. You gave a speech earlier this year where you said that you thought there was something fundamentally rotten in American finance. What is it that's rotten?
Sherrod Brown: Well, what's rotten on Wall Street is the influence the financial services industry continues to exert on Congress. Whenever they want something, they almost always get it. There's this collective amnesia that's set in on Congress, especially on Republicans, but a few Democrats, from time to time, where they forgot what happened 10 years ago. They forgot that it was Wall Street greed and overreach that cost hundreds of billions of dollars in retirement savings, cost millions of jobs, caused millions of foreclosures. And now, Wall Street comes knocking again. They want to deregulate this administration's appointees to a number of federal regulatory agencies, want to deregulate foreign banks in the United States. They want to weaken capital requirements on Wall Street. They want to weaken the consumer protection bureau.
Harwood: So would your objective be principally to prevent Dodd-Frank from being weakened, or are there affirmative steps beyond Dodd-Frank that you think we should take to address what you think is right?
Brown: Well, of course, it's both. You don't allow weakening of the rules that have made Wall Street behave a little better. But there are always new challenges, and especially on capital requirements. And I would add, especially in the consumer protection agency. Rich Cordray, a close friend of mine who happens to be running for governor of this state to succeed Governor Kasich – and Rich is a strong supporter of Medicaid expansion, his opponent not so much – Rich made his name, in a sense, I mean already had, as the head of the consumer bureau. And he stood up to Wall Street. We have a head of the consumer bureau now that's been basically a lapdog for Wall Street. And that's a big difference with what's happened in Washington – Rich Cordray versus a lapdog.
Harwood: But it sounds like it's more of a defensive agenda that is, to prevent things that have been done from being dismantled, as opposed to trying to break up banks or reimposing Glass-Steagall.
Brown: Yeah, I have little interest in reimposing Glass-Steagall. I don't think that's a – that's an answer to a question that's not being asked. Breaking up the banks – they're too big and too powerful – that's not on my agenda. My agenda is to, as you say, play defense, to make sure we have a vibrant consumer protection agency. It's to do oversight. I mean, the appointees from the administration to be these regulators are people, some of whom had a lot to do with the housing crisis, and a lot to do with the Wall Street greed and overreach. So you're damn right I play defense when they're trying to do things to undermine the economy. The animal spirits of Wall Street and the economy will always mean bankers want to take more risk. I don't blame them. They're acting in maybe their stockholders' best interest – not their communities', but their stockholders' best interest. You need regulators to say no. You need regulators, 120 miles from here on Lake Erie, to need regulators to make sure people don't dump stuff in Lake Erie. You need regulators to make sure banks don't take too much risk. This park is named after a midsized bank, Huntington Bank. They are a good bank. They do things right the great majority of the time. They're a great small business lender. I'm way less concerned about their overreach than I am the banks that are literally 10 times their size – in some cases, 15 times their size.
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