As anyone who’s spent time working on Capitol Hill knows, Washington, D.C., is really just an elaborate pressure system designed to turn corporate money and conservative conventional wisdom into congressional votes. With nearly every bill, there is a disconnect between what lawmakers tell the public they are doing and what they are actually doing and why.
In such a corrupt system, it seems nearly impossible to fight for the progressive agenda while ascending the power structure. The standard narrative says stay pure and be marginalized, or sell out the public and rise. But there are rare leaders who break this stereotype. One of them is Sherrod Brown.
A congressman from the Cleveland suburbs, Brown has both the fiery tenacity of history’s progressive champions and the seasoned political skills necessary to forge a different path to prominence. Over the years, he has defied the axiom that legislators who confront Washington’s corrupt pressure system don’t live to tell the tale. In fact, Brown has flourished.
On nearly every major issue, Brown has held the torch for progressives, even in the dark, lonely days when there was neither a blogosphere or infrastructure designed to support and promote progressive champions.
Over the last three years he stood out for his opposition to the war in Iraq, taking a leadership role early on, when it was most politically dangerous and controversial.
His most high-profile effort to oppose the war came in early 2004 when he had a face-to-face confrontation with Secretary of State Colin Powell – a man usually given wide berth on Capitol Hill due to his personal popularity. Brown demanded to know why Powell, a general, would parrot clearly misguided military policy from “a president who may have been AWOL” from duty. Powell snapped, “Mr. Brown, I won’t dignify your comments about the president because you don’t know what you are talking about.” But Brown stood his ground and pressed for an answer, creating a made-for-TV confrontation that highlighted the critical issues surrounding the war. The exchange was all over the national news. CNN reported that Brown’s performance showed that even with the president’s then-high poll ratings “at least some of the Democrats are going to continue to raise questions” about the president’s national security credentials and leadership.
In October, Brown announced his intention to run for the U.S. Senate against weak incumbent Sen. Mike DeWine (R‑Ohio). His candidacy provides an opportunity to begin building a bloc of progressives in the Senate, an institution whose few progressives are outgunned by both hard-right Republicans and weak-kneed Democrats.
Before getting to DeWine, however, Brown will face a primary challenge from Iraq war veteran Paul Hackett, who recently lost a special election race for Congress in the Cincinnati suburbs. Hackett’s a charismatic candidate and he ran a good House campaign this summer. He’s also benefited from the progressive blogosphere, whose funding helped him come close to winning a seat in a largely Republican district.
The question for progressives in this primary race, then, is simple: Do we support Brown, who has been our champion for years, and who can be counted on to take the progressive fight to the Senate? Or do we support Hackett, a guy with charisma and guts who is riding the tide of a never-before-seen phenomenon?
In terms of sheer politics, Brown has the advantage over Hackett in both money raised and proven statewide electoral success – that is not debatable. But beyond the crass questions of political strength are the more important questions of positions and record – the metrics that should concern all progressive donors and activists looking at this race. Brown has shown time and time again that he will not be intimidated by the Washington pressure system, and that he can be both effective and progressive within that system.
Hackett, by contrast, has already shown troubling signs when it comes to the issues.
For instance, as the Los Angeles Times reported, this summer when Hackett was running in a more conservative district and President Bush’s approval ratings were higher, he “generally opposed a timetable for withdrawal.” At one point, Hackett even adopted President Bush’s insulting language, saying he opposed withdrawal because “we can’t cut and run.”
“But now,” the Los Angeles Times notes, “Hackett has embraced the idea as he faces off in a Democratic Senate primary.” While it is certainly positive that Hackett has reversed his earlier position, his willingness to veer so sharply in different directions to fit the moment’s political circumstances raises questions about how he would behave in a Senate where the pressure system is designed to make shifting to the right on key issues seem most politically advantageous.
Additionally, Hackett has already displayed a willingness to vilify the left when it suits him. For instance, soon after Brown’s announcement, Hackett attacked the progressive champion as “a very liberal Democrat” in Mother Jones magazine. Days later, the Toledo Blade reported that in facing questions about the viability of his candidacy, Hackett “counters that his likely primary opponent, U.S. Rep. Sherrod Brown (D., Lorain), is too liberal to beat Mr. DeWine” – an opportunistic regurgitation of destructive right-wing talking points designed to dishonestly marginalize the progressive movement and its electoral effectiveness.
When the opportunity to elevate a populist hero to as powerful an institution as the Senate arises, it is up to the progressive grassroots base to turn the potential opportunity into concrete reality. This is not about helping Brown because he has “waited his turn” or “paid his dues” as a congressman or Ohio Secretary of State. It is about supporting someone who has courageously used his own political capital for progressive ends, even when it is politically risky –a very rare quality among politicians. It is about promoting someone who has repeatedly stuck his neck out for our cause because it is his cause.
Democratic politicians are watching this race. If the progressive base does not reward Brown for his impeccable record and outspoken leadership, we send a message to every other progressive federal, state and local elected official: We do not value elected officials who take risks and fight for the progressive agenda.
Will we as progressives squander this opportunity or will we help ourselves by helping one of our own? Here’s hoping for the latter. It’s time we start putting our proven champions in positions of power.