Jim Renacci confirmed what just about everyone understood. His campaign for the U.S. Senate last fall was in deep trouble. He opened a line of criticism against his opponent, Sherrod Brown, arguing the incumbent spent too much time in Washington and failed to stay in touch with Ohioans. The jab was laughable. Brown has earned a reputation for showing up about everywhere, often meeting with people in small groups around a table.
Then, the senator mostly listens and asks questions. It has become the equivalent of a go-to move, his bread and butter or wheelhouse. Which gets to what Brown is doing now as he weighs whether to seek the Democratic presidential nomination in 2020.
On Wednesday, he launched his Dignity of Work tour in Cleveland and then traveled to Iowa, the first caucus state, where he made stops to sit down with farmers, labor leaders, business owners and others to hear their stories, their concerns and priorities. He plans to do the same in New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina, all states on the calendar early in the nomination battle, which already has attracted a large field.
So Brown is smart to play to his strength, avoiding the error so many candidates, real and might be, commit — trying to be something they are not. That goes for the theme of the tour, too. The senator long has talked about the dignity of work. It gained a more prominent presence in his successful re-election campaign last year and in drawing an effective contrast with President Trump.
Brown is right to insist that the dignity of work belongs high on the agenda of the Democratic presidential race. What does it mean? The senator offered an explanation in his kickoff speech. At one point, he reminded that Martin Luther King Jr. stressed, “all work has dignity.” Brown then added that the concept means “hard work should pay off for everyone, no matter who you are or what kind of work you do.” The trouble is, that hasn’t been the case, not when those at the highest income rungs have gained virtually all of the new income while pay for the rest largely has been stagnant for decades.
The dignity in work becomes harder to see when six of the 10 most common occupations in Ohio pay so little that workers are eligible for public assistance. No doubt, that assistance elevates lives, say, through Medicaid coverage. At the same time, the need says something unflattering about the policy choices we are making, especially when the paths to opportunity, such as good health care and higher education, have become so prohibitively expensive.
Brown told his Cleveland gathering, “When work has dignity, our country has a strong middle class. Dignity of work is a value that unites all of us.” The idea isn’t that people get something they haven’t earned. It is the opposite, too many working hard and not seeing what they deserve. In that way, as the senator noted, Democrats do not need to choose somehow between progressives and the working class.
Which gets to something else distinctive about the senator’s theme, his tactical advantage against the president. He has been there concerning the dignity of work. He recognizes phoniness and has credibility calling it out. Does all of this translate to Sherrod Brown for president? He has become an outstanding legislator, and in doing so found a way to make his voice heard. An executive post is a different job. Then, there’s the fire-in-the-belly thing each presidential candidate faces.
For now, Brown has something to say. His party does well to listen.