The Lordstown Effect

The Lordstown Effect

Late last week, Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH) announced that he will not run for president in 2020, declaring that he would prefer to stay in the Senate to criticize President Trump and support whomever the Dems nominate against Trump. He had been highly praised by various commentators, including Chris Matthews, and even conservative columnist, George Will, who wrote an entire column in WaPo praising him. In repeated polling among Daily Kos activists he was running around fifth or sixth at about 5%, with the top 3 being Harris, Warren, and Sanders over 10%, and Brown in with Biden, Klobuchar, and O’Rourke in the mid-single digits range, all the others never exceeding 1% (so much for all the attention paid to Booker and Gillibrand, neither going anywhere). In short, Brown had potential to be a serious candidate, with a record generally respected by both progressives (despite not signing on for “Medicare-for-all”) as well as more moderate Dem types. Of course, his biggest appeal, symbolized by his “Dignity for Work” slogan, was his clearly strong appeal to the midwestern white working class that was key to Trump’s 2016 victory, with this reinforced by Brown’s strong reelection victory in Ohio in 2018, even as GOP took the governorship.

With all this going for him, and his having enough support to be in the top tier out of the scads of seriously nobody candidates clamoring to run, why really did he pull out? I do not know, but I find his “I love the Senate so much” explanation not all that convincing. He took a pretty substantial tour around the country with his clearly appealing Dignity for Work pitch, but somehow he obviously decided it was just not quite enough to warrant the hard reality of running, which certainly is hard. There may have been doubts in his family, and nobody can be blamed for simply not wanting to put up with all that is involved in such a serious run. Being in the Senate is certainlhy a lot easier, not that I think Brown is lazy or scared or any of that.

Beyond whatever personal factors there may be, two factors stick out obviously as possibilities, especially when put together. One is that he is a white male at a time when there are a lot of women running, as well as several non-white candidates, with Kamala Harris recently topping those DK activist polls, if not the broader ones, where two other whilte males lead, the more senior and better known Biden and Sanders, with Biden apparently definitely getting in. Brown arguably overlaps with both of them, but he would have a hard time beating either of them in the end, and given that they might well be battling for the lead for those not wanting a woman (or nonwhite) candidate, he may have felt he did not have a good enough chance in the end.

The other may have been a feeling that there is also a strong tilt to a progressive stance he felt he could not fully sign on to, with the “Medicare-for-all” issue the tip of an iceberg, although ironically he has long been viewed as among the most progressive and leftist of Dems in the Senate, if not quite as much so as Sanders or Warren. He saw Harris bungle while supporting “Medicare-for-all” by declaring this would mean no private health insurance, and her having to walk that back. Harris looks to be maybe in about the same place as Brown, someone who might appeal to both party wings, but with her more willing to pander to the left with a strong likelihood of “moving to the center” if she gets the nomination, a very traditional thing to do, but maybe one Brown just did not want to play. As someone in the Senate for a longer time, and with him emphasizing his love of being in the Senate, it may be that he is too aware of complications for some of these slogans when one gets around to making them into actual policies, with this also applying to the Green New Deal, which I think he was also unwilling to sign on to (I may be wrong on that one). He may be too much of a policy wonk a la Hillary Clinton, worrying about getting into policy details that would damage his run for the nomination in a time when a more strongly voiced support of a harder line progressive set of positions seems to be popular.

However, there is one other matter that I think may have played a role in his decision, although perhaps more indirectly, and I think there if so it was probably less important than the two already mentioned. But it would have been and is there. I am labeling it the “Lordstown Effect,” and it has to do with his more or less unabashed and across the board protectionism. This is (and was) without doubt a central part of his “Dignity for Work” program and also his appeal to the midwestern white working class, arguably the strongest argument for making him the candidate (and he may well yet end up as the VP candidate for Harris or some other non-white male candidate, with reportedly Clinton having seriously considered him for it in 2016).

The problem is that Trump has now shown us what a mess an aggressively protectionist program is, which weakens Brown’s position. It is not just that one is hurting farmers, who seem to be sticking with Trump anyway despite getting hurt by his policies. It is that even in the core of the old unionized industrial Midwest in Ohio, such an across the board protectionism runs into contradictions, and it has done so in Ohio itself, where Brown has had to face this, managing to get around it on the ground for now, but I suspect fully aware of the problem. It is highlighted by the closing of the large auto assembly plant by GM in Lordstown, Ohio. While there were other factors, a major one according to GM is the steel tariffs Trump has not only put on for the clearly hypocritical reason of “national security,” but the fact that after renegotiating NAFTA (which Brown proudly voted against and supported renegotiating), Trump did not remove the steel tariffs on Mexico and Canada. Brown supported and supports the steel tariffs, which help him in Youngstown and other Ohio steel towns (and Youngstown was a place that flipped from supporting Obama in 2012 to Trump in 2016), but those same steel tariffs also hurt the industries that use steel, notably in this case the auto industry, which has many production facilities in Ohio also, with the one (formerly) at Lordstown one of the largest.

As long as it was all just an abstract possibility, Brown could address a rally with steel and autoworkers and support protectionism for both the steel and auto industries. But, in the end, when the abstraction became a reality, supporting the steel tariffs hurts the autoworkers. Somehow, somewhere, I think Brown understands this, and it may be that this Lordstown Effect played into his decision, with him realizing that a full-throated defense of across-the-board protectionism is not going to be the leading issue for a Dem trying to unseat the protectionist Donald Trump. But, who knows, the eventual Dem candidate may yet want to have him on board as VP candidate to quiety nod in that direction anyway, especially if that candidate does not have obvious appeal to the midwestern white male working class. We shall see. But I suspect that awareness of the Lordstown Effect has played a role in Brown’s decision not to run right now for president.

Barkley Rosser

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