The Test Case Race: In Ohio, Sherrod Brown Is Running for the Senate as Thomas Frank's Dream Candidate. Can Economic Populism Vanquish Culture and Terror in a Red State?

By McNeill, James | The American Prospect, October 2006 | Go to article overview

The Test Case Race: In Ohio, Sherrod Brown Is Running for the Senate as Thomas Frank's Dream Candidate. Can Economic Populism Vanquish Culture and Terror in a Red State?


McNeill, James, The American Prospect


THE WORLD HEADQUARTERS OF THE GOODYEAR TIRE AND Rubber Co. is still in Akron, Ohio, but all they make there now are decisions. Except for a few specialty racing tires, Goodyear hasn't made tires in Akron in years. Industry here is dead, dead, dead, and there is nothing we can do to revive it.

Apparently, Sherrod Brown never got that memo from the Atari Democrats. Twenty-five years after the cutting-edge members of his party gave up on quaint ideas like manufacturing and collective bargaining, Brown, a seven-term congressman from northeast Ohio, is running a campaign for Senate that breaks every rule in the New Democrat playbook.

On a cloudless day in August, Brown is holding a press conference on a sidewalk two miles up East Market Street from Goodyear's headquarters. Here in Akron's hollowed-out core, he talks earnestly about rebuilding Ohio's industrial base by investing in alternative energy. He blasts incumbent Republican Senator Mike DeWine and President Bush for having "such a bias toward oil and gas and so little interest in helping with ethanol, helping with solar and wind power."

Brown has been holding dozens of press conferences like this over the course of his campaign. The focus may shift to free-trade or the Medicare drug plan, but the basic message is the same: DeWine and Bush--the two are twins in Brown's world--have capitulated to corporate interests and abandoned the public interest. "We have seen in our government today that the drug industry is writing the Medicare laws," Brown says, "that Wall Street writes the Social Security privatization proposals, and the oil and gas industry dictates energy policy" That may be fairly standard rhetoric this season for Democrats, but in a speech before family farmers in Columbus, Brown goes on to complain that certain members of his own party have also compromised their principles when they've supported trade bills that cater to big business. "Bill Clinton used to do this and it drove me nuts," he says.

This is the campaign dreamed of by political writers like Thomas Frank and David Sirota, who insist that Democrats can become the majority party again--can win back all those Values Voters--only by returning to the economic populism they abandoned. Brown often sounds like he's quoting directly from Frank's What's the Matter with Kansas? Explaining his emphasis on bread-and-butter economic issues, the pro-choice Brown says, "People that might have voted [against me] on choice or ... gay rights are going to say Brown's fighting for us, and that's how we're going to win."

Other Democrats aren't so sure. They fear that Brown's message is just too liberal to appeal to an electorate that went narrowly for Bush in 2004. If Brown wins this high-profile Senate race in a hotly contested battleground state, progressive Democrats will have earned some serious bragging rights. If he loses, the party's centrists can claim that it's time for the people and the powerful to all just get along.

BROWN'S IS A POPULISM OF SUBSTANCE RATHER THAN style. He doesn't do photo ops in duck blinds. That comes as a relief on a miserable summer day in Cincinnati, during the worst of a brutal heat wave. Instead of standing in 100-degree heat clutching a gun, Brown is in the air-conditioned lounge of a local nursing home doing yet another news conference--this one on the failings of the 2003 Medicare prescription-drug law. Four TV crews are here to film the horror stories. One Medicare recipient admits that she's taking dangerously low doses of her reeds because they're still unaffordable. A son tells how a private insurer forced his elderly mother into an overpriced drug plan. Brown, who looks more like a genial Rotary Club member than a liberal firebrand, listens intently to each story.

It's hard to find a less jaded member of Congress than the 53-year-old Brown. Instead of going on golf junkets to Scotland, he travels to slums in Central America to meet with impoverished factory workers. …

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