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Democrats Announce Exploratory Presidential Bids. Is Sherrod Brown Next?


Senator Sherrod Brown has announced travel plans. The Ohio Democrat is visiting Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina. No coincidence that all four states hold early presidential caucuses and primaries. Senator Brown is one of maybe a couple dozen Democrats showing an interest, and he's on the line. Senator, good morning.

SHERROD BROWN: Hey. How are you?

INSKEEP: Are you running?

BROWN: I don't know yet. We have not made that decision. Before answering any of this, I wanted to just thank you all for doing the burn pit veteran story. We have worked for years - Congress has - generally pretty well when - presumptive eligibility for Agent Orange. And these burn pits, I mean, the government, the military should have known this, just like the chemical companies knew about Agent Orange. And Congress has got to move more quickly on this.

INSKEEP: I appreciate the thanks, and it's an important issue. But because time is brief here, let me just ask you, why would you not run, Senator Brown?

BROWN: I don't know. I've got - it's an earthquake for a family. I mean, everything - it's going to be a personal decision in that way. But I, you know, I think that in too many cases, Congress - too many people are in this country - too many Democrats. The National Democratic Party sees this in far too many - it's kind of this false choice of Democrats fight - Democrats speak to the progressive base or speak to working-class families regardless of race. I think you need to do both.

I want to at least inform the national conversation. I want whoever is the nominee to talk about the dignity of work. That's why we're doing this tour. And we will figure it out in March if I want to make this run.

INSKEEP: OK. You talked about speaking to the working class. I want people to be aware, if they're not, that on trade, you have sounded in some ways a little like President Trump. You're from an industrial state. You've been critical of NAFTA. I understand that. But do you think that Democrats are ready for anybody who has anything in common with President Trump?

BROWN: Well, I think Democrats want somebody that will speak to the dignity of work and will speak for workers? And I've - I helped to lead the fight against NAFTA when Donald Trump was still selling - and still is - his products made by low paid, exploited workers overseas, including Chinese workers. So I never talk about trade the way he does. I never pit workers in Mexico or France again against workers in the United States or Bangladesh. I never use racist terms like he does.

My position on trade is all about workers. His position on trade is something else. I appreciate the efforts to renegotiate NAFTA, but the president's not even close to being in the right place on NAFTA if he's not going to have strong enforcement for labor standards, which they don't have yet.

INSKEEP: Well, let's talk about that. You said the dignity of work - it's a good phrase. You've said that one thing you mean by that is higher wages for people, which is certainly something that has been lacking for a lot of people for decades. But according to economists, the real problem here - a real problem is globalization, automation, computers, AI taking over jobs. Are you going to be able to solve that if you were elected?

BROWN: Well, first, Steve, it's - the dignity of work is more than a phrase. For me, it's who I am. And it's a career of fighting for workers. It's a lot of things. It's minimum wage. It's the overtime rule which the president undercut. I mean, the White House looks like a retreat for Wall Street executives. They always come down on the side of special interests. I want somebody in the White House, whoever is the nominee, talking about the dignity of work, putting workers first.

And workers first means whether you - all work, whether you swipe a badge or punch a clock, whether you work for a salary or whether you're working for tips, whether you're taking care of an aging parent or raising children. We need to put workers first in this conversation, not tax cuts for the rich first, not deregulation first.

INSKEEP: Let me raise an awkward question here, Senator Brown. You've mentioned that one difference between you and President Trump is you don't want to use racist terms. You want to speak to workers regardless of race. This raises an interesting question for you. Jamelle Bouie of Slate is one of a number of analysts who have suggested in print it might be time for Democrats to nominate a woman or a person of color because of the political situation, because Democrats have so many women who succeeded in 2018. Do you think there's something to that argument?

BROWN: Sure, there is. But the most important thing is whom we fight for. And President Trump demonizes immigrants. He divides America to distract from the fact that he's using the White House to enrich people like himself. We need to fight his phony populism. I mean, Donald Trump can't campaign - candidate Trump campaigned as a populist, then he governed as a royalist. And it's important to point that distinction out.

I want to nominate a Democrat, whoever he or she is, I want to nominate a Democrat who's going to fight for the dignity of work and is going to put workers of all races first because justice issues grows out of that in a way that we need to make sure that workers have opportunities.

INSKEEP: Can you give us a sentence that would distinguish you from Elizabeth Warren or Kamala Harris or Beto O'Rourke or any number of people who are running or may run?

BROWN: I'm not going to do that. I only will say that I hope that they all adopt the dignity of work because, I mean, I won a state - I won Ohio, a state where Trump won by almost nine points, I won by seven points in this election. I think we need to win in the heartland, and we do it not by playing to only the progressive base or only where we do it - by playing to the progressive base and to working class voters of all races. And I think I'm ideally suited to do that.

INSKEEP: Well, Senator Brown, we'll pay attention to your travels. Thanks for joining us this morning.


INSKEEP: Senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio.

NPR political editor Domenico Montanaro has been listening along with us. Domenico, good morning.

MONTANARO: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: What do you hear there?

MONTANARO: You know, there's a lot there. I mean, any time a candidate decides to run, they have to consider their family and consider what it would mean and do - you know, he said that it's an earthquake for a family, has to be a personal decision. And I did like at the end there how, you know, you tried to ask for a distinction between himself and some of the other potential candidates, and he said he wouldn't do it and then he did.

You know, in particular, one of the things that he talks about and that other people who talk about this potential campaign is the heartland. It is Ohio. It is those white working class lunch pail Democrats who used to be the core of the Democratic Party who President Trump targeted and won. And Sherrod Brown is somebody who would absolutely try to target those voters again to try to get them back on board.

One of his big vulnerabilities, however, and why he's talking about this tour between now and March is his sort of low name recognition. Not a lot of voters are saying they know who he is. Two-thirds of voter - of Democratic primary voters, in fact, are saying they're not so sure who he is. They don't know - maybe have an opinion of him. And he needs to be able to get people more familiar with who he is.

INSKEEP: And he's one of many people running or thinking of running. In fact, just last night, Kirsten Gillibrand, New York - senator from the state of New York was on CBS' "The Late Show With Stephen Colbert," and she said she is running. Let's listen to a bit.


KIRSTEN GILLIBRAND: I'm going to fight for other people's kids as hard as I would fight for my own, which is why I believe that health care should be a right and not a privilege.


GILLIBRAND: It's why I believe we should have better public schools for our kids 'cause it shouldn't matter what block you grow up on.

INSKEEP: You can hear the progressive themes being pushed there, Domenico.

MONTANARO: Yeah. There are not going to be huge policy differences between these candidates, but it's going to be one of emphasis.

INSKEEP: Domenico, thanks very much, really appreciate it.

MONTANARO: You're so welcome.

INSKEEP: That's NPR political editor Domenico Montanaro. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.