The crowd erupted in whistles and cheers. It was vintage Brown—populist, protectionist, and followed by plenty of retail, one-on-one conversations. Brown ate hotdogs, shook hands, and greeted union officials with a warm familiarity. After serving in Ohio politics since 1975, Brown knows a lot of people statewide.
“Sherrod is our guy,” says Lance Myers, a steelworker in his 20s with a blond flattop and an armful of tattoos. “He walked on the picket line with us in 2005 and 2006. He will get reelected.”
Brown, 59, isn’t from a working-class background; his father was a doctor. On social issues, he stands to the left of many of his working-class constituents. He supports abortion rights and opposed a state ballot initiative banning same-sex marriage. Once upon a time, those were the kinds of positions that doomed a Democrat in Ohio. In 2004, an unexpectedly large turnout of Ohio evangelical voters who opposed presidential candidate John Kerry’s position on same-sex marriage and other social issues ended up costing him the state—and the White House.
But even Brown’s opponents concede that, at this point, his far-left positions are so well-known to voters that attacking them doesn’t yield much. “He’s an unabashed liberal. He’s the first to tell you that,” said Nate Hodson, director of state and regional media relations for Crossroads GPS. “So Ohio voters say, ‘We know Brown’s a liberal. What else?’ It’s kind of baked in.”
In Ohio in 2012, China seems to matter a lot more to voters than whether gays and lesbians can get married. Over the past six months, China-bashing has emerged as a major theme in the presidential race, as Romney and Obama each try to convince voters, especially Ohio voters, who lost thousands of jobs to China in the recession, that they’ll crack down on China as an unfair trading partner and currency manipulator.
Brown has been criticizing the Asian superpower for years, and he is consistently to the left of Obama on the issue. Brown’s 2006 book, Myths of Free Trade, argues, “An unregulated global economy is a threat to all of us.” This year, he proposed the Currency Exchange Rate Oversight Reform Act, aimed at cracking down on Beijing’s currency policies. The bill passed the Senate with bipartisan support, but in the Republican-majority House, Boehner hasn’t brought it up for a vote. For his part, Mandel opposes the currency bill, as he did the auto bailout.
Brown says, “If Romney were genuine about this, he’d pick up the phone and call John Boehner and tell him to schedule a vote on our bipartisan currency bill, so Ohioans and Ohio companies can go to work and compete with China on a level playing field.”
Brown’s protectionist fervor extends, literally, to his shoes. To the dismay of his staff, the senator has always worn sneakers with his suits; in fact, he was the founding member of the Senate’s “sneaker caucus.” In recent years, he had upgraded to a pair of hip Puma slip-ons, until it was pointed out that they were manufactured in China. So he switched back to a pair of lumpy, dowdy New Balance sneakers—the only major American-made brand. (The shoes are made in a factory in Massachusetts. Brown even goes so far as to buy shoelaces made in Portsmouth, Ohio.)
His message is resonating with its target audience: disaffected blue-collar workers. Dan Ellis, a 57-year-old unemployed veteran from Cincinnati, said that the senator’s China polices are one reason the Democrat appeals to men like himself. “That’s a big issue,” Ellis says. “A friend of mine and I went up to Middletown, and I saw the biggest train I saw in years, and everything had Chinese writing on it. Something’s got to be addressed. Apple, everything’s made over there. Can’t they let us make the stuff we’re buying? Maybe it’s time that we use a little protectionism, because China still does.”
Critics say that Brown is offering a dumbed-down view of the global marketplace. “People like Sherrod Brown are living in a time warp. They’re still thinking of China as it was five years ago,” says Nicholas Lardy, an expert on trade and the Chinese economy with the Peter G. Peterson Institute for International Economics.
“Here’s the reality check: China had a huge global surplus in 2005, 2006, and 2007—and in 2007, we had full employment. But now China’s currency has appreciated and their trade surplus has come down,” Lardy says. “China-bashing appeals to people, and candidates believe this is a good issue to bring to voters, but there’s no one-to-one connection between China’s trade and currency policies and America’s manufacturing.”
To illustrate how complicated the issue is: Just 40 miles up the road from Columbus sits a nonunion Honda plant that, in the 1980s, was eagerly welcomed by politicians and the public alike as a means to boost the state’s economy. It employs more than 4,000 people.