Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan has eight days left to convince his fellow Congress members to end Nancy Pelosi’s 13-year reign and make him the leader of the House Democrats.
In an interview on Sunday, Ryan, who announced last week that he is campaigning for minority leader, outlined the basic pitch he’s making this week in phone call after phone call to his Democratic colleagues: that the public thinks their party has been captured by big money interests and donors, and that Pelosi is poorly positioned to change that.
“Keeping the same leadership will not allow us to get out of the same frame, the same box, we’ve been put in — as being complicit in the problem as opposed to against the problem,” said Ryan, 43, of Youngstown, Ohio. “The public sees Democrats … as being elite and more concerned with the donor class than we are with them.”
The stakes of this fight could be big for the direction of the party. In the congressional elections of 2018, Democrats are going to have their first shot at dealing Donald Trump and the Republicans a major blow. Who they choose as their leader now might be a crucial in determining if they can start to reverse course.
Ryan is widely seen as lacking the negotiating experience, policy chops, or fundraising acumen to do the difficult job of being House minority leader, according to Democrats I’ve interviewed on Capitol Hill. But while he likes Pelosi personally, Ryan said in our interview, the party needs someone who can separate it from the perception that it merely represents rich coastal elites.
The job before him is persuading his peers that person is him.
“We are in unchartered waters: Donald Trump is going to be president of the United States. Our kids and grandkids are going to ask us what we did,” Ryan says. “And I hope that the answer is not, ‘nothing.’”
Why Ryan thinks he can help House Democrats win more than Pelosi can
I know you say that you like Pelosi and that this isn’t personal. But I want to drill down specifically into what you think the House and Senate Democratic leadership is doing incorrectly, what you’ve seen that scares you about where the party is going, and what it should be doing instead in response to Trump.
To me, the main issue is a lack of focus on working-class issues. We can talk about all of the issues that Democrats want — right down the line, things like infrastructure, education and technology and all of the rest.
None of that is going to happen unless we get in the majority. The reason I’m running is because I believe in my heart that we will not get back in the majority with the current leadership and with the current leader. It is not going to happen.
We are fooling ourselves if we somehow think we’re going to do that. It hurts me to say that — because I consider her a friend and a historical figure in our politics. But there’s no way we’re going to be able to win the 30 or 40 seats we need to win with the current leader, because many of these districts, she can’t go into them.
If it were a guy like me, I can. I can go into any district. And I’m not saying I’m the only one. But I am the only one who is running [for minority leader]. Changing the party from the perception that people have is key. And so what do you do differently? You start by putting a team together that can put you in the majority. Nobody has been held accountable for what’s happened the past few cycles. Nobody has taken responsibility.
I’m curious why you think so few House members have come out to endorse your candidacy if it seems so obvious to do.
I think different people have different reasons. You’re going to see more people come out in the next few days, and everybody has their reason.
Here’s the question I’m asking my colleagues when making calls and talking to them: Look, there have only been 10,000 members of Congress in the entire history of the country. We are in unchartered waters: Donald Trump is going to be president of the United States.
Our kids and grandkids are going to ask us what we did. They’re going to say, “Grandma, grandpa, you were in the United States Congress when Donald Trump got elected president. What did you do?” And I hope that the answer is not, “nothing.” Or “I thought the status quo was the direction we should have gone in.” Or, “I didn’t think we should have made any changes and that we should keep the same thing and do more of the same.”
This is a historic moment. We were elected to lead. And leaders lead. And that means having tough conversations. You can’t say to your grandkids, “I didn’t want to hurt anybody’s feelings.” That’s not going to cut it.
Ryan: Democrats need to get beyond their public image as coastal elites
There’s this notion that one of the problems for Democrats is that they’ve spent so much time fundraising in elite circles that the public writ-large does not understand that they stand for more progressive economic income distribution.
How much is Democrats’ fundraising operation is part of the problem, and do you think Pelosi is seen as too close Silicon Valley and other financial elites?
Yes, the public sees Democrats as part of the problem — in that we focus way too much on fundraising and money, and that is at the expense of focusing on them. They see us as being elite and more concerned with the donor class than we are with them.
It seems like that’s a real issue though. Let’s say you’re House minority leader, and a Democrat in Michigan comes to you and says, “Hey, I really need money for my race, and Pelosi used to help me out with millions of dollars that I need.”
What do you then do? Tell them, “sorry, good luck”?
Well, first and foremost we have to try to fix the original problem — “drain the swamp” was our original language from 2006. Democrats should immediately propose publicly financed campaigns or some other overhaul.
That’s what I would do as leader: “Here’s what you talked about; we want to get money out of politics; here’s our proposal.” And we begin to distance ourselves from the perception that we as a party care more about the donor class than we do about the working class.
But my pushback there is that Hillary Clinton also ran on a platform of repealing Citizens United, public financing for campaigns, and other proposals to get money out of politics. It seems like those positions didn’t sway the public because of the fundraising she was doing. The public trusted her to take on the special interests more than it trusted Trump.
Assuming the world we live in now will not change — that Mitch McConnell will not be particularly excited for a campaign finance overhaul — what do you do to change that perception?
First and foremost, you elect a guy from Youngstown, Ohio, as your leader. That sends a signal that the Democrats are serious about this. Right or wrong, people had the perception that Hillary Clinton was cozy with Wall Street.
You can’t effectively tie me to Wall Street. You say the guy from Youngstown is talking about how we’re paying too much attention to the donor class, that is a different perception than what we’re currently dealing with. Keeping the same leadership will not allow us to get out of the same frame, the same box, we’ve been put in as being complicit in the problem as opposed to against the problem.
We are already lumped into the “establishment.” We are making explicit decisions to try to say that is not who we are — and that we’ll change our leadership to send that signal to the voters who say we need change.
We’re seeing the election results, and our constituents — including many, many, many Democrats — voted for Trump because they thought the Democrats were in the tank with the wealthiest people in the donor class and the elites and Wall Street.
So they went with Trump — they thought he wouldn’t be reliant on the money. For us to step right back in with the same leadership will only solidify in the voters’ minds, “Yes, they are in the tank, and the Democrats didn’t get the message that we wanted change.”
Of course, there are racist elements of Trump’s campaign and [Steve] Bannon. But there are a lot of people who voted for Obama twice and who voted for Donald Trump, and those people aren’t racist. They’re working-class folks. It breaks my heart that the people of my district, where the median income is $57,000 a year … that those people don’t see the Democratic Party as on their side, or as advocating for them. That’s heartbreaking for me.
We’ve talked about a money-out-of-politics approach as being necessary for Democrats to start winning in states they lost. I’ve made this argument to some of my colleagues, and the pushback they tend to make is, “Look what happened to Russ Feingold in Wisconsin; nobody is clearer on the issue of campaign finance than he is, and yet he lost” — and by a pretty significant margin.
What lessons do you draw from that? Does it suggest the limitations of that approach?
Well, it was a unique year and we need to rebrand the party. We were running in an environment where Democrats had a bad brand. What we need to do now is figure out how we change the brand, so you’re providing a national storyline and have a national brand guys like Russ could run under. The fact that the contrast is so clear with Republicans controlling everything gives us a real chance to rebrand ourselves and let that message sink in to people — that we are the party for working-class America.
Tim Ryan on policy, Bernie Sanders, and the fight over Obamacare
I want to ask what kind of message you think the Democrats can win with. Specifically, looking at the divisions from the primary, do you think a Bernie Sanders-style tax proposal is one they could win with in a Midwest or conservative district or state?
I think the message on taxes has to be first and foremost to ask the top 1 percent of the wealthiest people to pay their fair share. There’s been a huge concentration of wealth at the top, and that’s how we should start. We shouldn’t raise taxes on the middle class.
Do you think Sanders goes too far on middle-class tax increases?
I’m not sure what he said or understand his entire proposal, but, in my estimation, step one is to bring fairness to the tax code because there’s been so much gained by the 1 percent of the country. I felt like Hillary talked about it; it was such a noisy presidential election, but she was pretty clear about that.
The evidence on income growth in the past 20 years suggests that the gains have gone to the top income-earners in the country. We have investments in our country; we need to grow the economic pie, and we have to make that clear.
I’m trying to figure out what you think the Democrats message has to be for winning again in Michigan and Wisconsin and Ohio.
In the primary, Bernie called for very aggressive environmental policy — including a fracking ban and a carbon tax. Do you think those are two issues where Democrats in Midwestern states should endorse?
First and foremost, if we’re going to win, we’re going to need to have a broad coalition, a big tent, for our party. Which means different people will have different opinions on issues if they come from rural Mississippi then if they come from Napa Valley.
Those are two different words. But what unites those different worlds is an economic message. The goal for our caucus will be to say: “Let’s focus on the economic issues that are important; the pocketbook issues that people care about.” That’s what drives our brand. Then we have discussions and arguments and fights about where we stand on some of those other issues. But you don’t have that luxury until you’re in the majority. So you have a national storyline — and they take that national message, and apply it to their local districts. You have to allow that.
Imagine you’re minority leader, and the House Republicans manage to ram through an Obamacare repeal through reconciliation. Would you then be willing to work with them on a replace package? Or would it be more important to demand that Obamacare be reinstated and make clear to the American public who is to blame for the mess of repeal?
I think we’d need to communicate to the American people that millions of people are getting thrown of their health insurance or that out of pocket expenditures would skyrocket.
No future replacement is going to be acceptable unless all of those people get back on a health care assistance program. Of course, my sense is you need to fight them tooth-and-nail on this, and we need to make the case to the American people that you have to put us back into the majority.
And I think that speaks to my leadership style. I want to feel out how the caucus thinks about what’s happening; I want the caucus to have their say. I want this to be bottom-up, not top-down, and I think that’s an issue with how a lot of members feel right now.
Is the Democratic Party leadership doing enough to take on Donald Trump?
I’m curious how you regard the current decisions of Democratic leadership to say that there are points on which they can agree with Trump.
Sunday on Meet the Press, Chuck Schumer said he thought the Flynn nomination was very troubling and that he was going to need to see more, but that he’d let Flynn present his case to the American people.
Flynn has said a fear of Muslims is rational. Is that too credulous of an attitude for Democratic leadership to take?
I think so. [Appointing Flynn] is not being inclusive. This is not saying, “Oh, that was just political rhetoric, let’s all move on and I’ll nominate some people who represent all Americans.”
You cannot talk that way. That is unacceptable to an entire religion, saying, “Because you’re a member of a religion people should fear you.” Same with Bannon, too. It’s ridiculous. If I’m minority leader, Bannon will not be welcome in my office. Period.
Do you think the Democratic leadership has stuck up to these guys enough so far?
I haven’t heard what everybody has said, but we need to push back. We need to push back. We need to hold onto the idea that everyone has a home in the United States of America; everyone is welcome here.
My great-grandfather came from Italy and had some bumps along the way and was welcome. If the Democratic Party doesn’t take a firm stance on the basic American principle that everybody is welcome in this country and nobody should be discriminated against — if we can’t do that, then what the hell are we doing here?