Ohio Democratic congressman Tim Ryan first came to national prominence a year ago when he launched a bid to unseat Nancy Pelosi as his party’s top leader. Political insiders have long considered the poised and outspoken 44-year old legislator a likely candidate for the U.S. Senate or even the Ohio Governor’s Mansion
But the presidency?
Officially, Ryan says he’s not entertaining a White House run. But consider his travel itinerary of late: two trips to Iowa and three to New Hampshire. Democrats in these bellwether presidential primary contests have heard the buzz about Ryan. And they’re eager to get a closer look at the man who still blames Pelosi for the Democrats’ loss in 2016 and — virtually alone among Democrats — has publicly demanded her ouster in the run-up to 2018.
Ryan’s also increasingly outspoken about President Donald Trump’s policies — most recently on protection for the steel industry. But he’s striking a different tone from the “globalists” of the Clinton wing of the party, to say nothing of most Republicans.
He’s not launching a broadside against trade tariffs as “protectionism.” He comes from steel country himself and is well aware that Trump’s approach resonates with industrial workers in his district and in Ohio as a whole.
But Ryan is calling into question the breadth of Trump’s proposed steel tariffs, noting that they could hurt a key US ally like Canada.
This is the kind of nuance one expects from a future White House aspirant who wants to compete against a president who, despite recent polls, remains popular, especially in the Rust Belt, a critical electoral battleground that Clinton failed to defend and which gave Trump his margin of victory in 2016.
Ryan knows this battleground like the back of his hand. Over eight successive terms in Congress representing Ohio’s 13th district — which includes the “historic” steel capital of Youngstown — Ryan has demonstrated that he can win by bringing together working class whites and African Americans, two constituencies often seen as divided and difficult to reconcile within the Democratic coalition.
Ryan’s message is the party needs to practice “diversity” and “inclusion” – but not at the expense of voters that once formed the background of the Democratic Party but that increasingly tilt toward the GOP due to their own moderate-to-conservative stances on a host of social issues like abortion and gay marriage as well as gun control.
Ryan’s fond of pointing out that half of Youngstown workers are Black, and being an industrial worker is both a class and a race issue. Outreach needs to bring all workers together lest race be used as a factor to divide workers, allowing GOP politicians like Trump to woo white voters to their side, he argues.
Ryan’s views place him at the center of a sprawling and divisive debate among two other factions of Democrats, including the so-called “Blue Dogs” whose reviews on the economy and social issues are often compared to Trump’s. Another faction is comprised of die-hard economic populists like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren who unlike Ryan favor a “progressive” agenda across the board.
One of Ryan’s biggest advantages is his youth. Warren, Sanders, Clinton, and former Vice President Joe Biden are all close to 70 — perhaps too old to wage a dynamic and compelling campaign, even if their opponent, Trump, will be 74 in 2020.
And Ryan might also serve as a bridge between Clinton, who retains the allegiance of a loyal if dwindling core of female supporters, and younger progressives associated with Warren and especially Sanders. Clinton reportedly considered Ryan as her running mate in 2016, a sign of his prospective role as a party “unifier” with access to big-money donors.
Right now, though, Ryan enjoys far less media name recognition than a host of other prospective Democratic contenders. They include not only Sanders and Warren, but two flashy African-Americans, first-term California senator Kamal Harris and New Jersey senator Corey Booker, both of whom are reportedly eager to run.
There are some signs that Democrats – at least in the Rust Belt states – are already moving in Ryan’s direction — if not toward Ryan personally. In March, moderate Democrat Conor Lamb won a razor-thin victory in Pennsylvania’s normally GOP-controlled 16th district by appealing to working class voters with a strong message on social security and Medicaid. But he refused to repudiate his past conservative stances on gun rights or tax cuts.
Ryan, in defiance of Pelosi, has been calling on Democrats to display that that same ideological flexibility for over a year. Right now, regaining the House and eventually Congress, he argues, is more important than mandating a specific agenda, whether “progressive” or “conservative.”
Could Democrats tolerate such an unrepentant “centrist” as their presidential candidate? If they expect to compete with Trump, they may not have much choice.
For now, Ryan’s keeping his presidential ambitions close to his vest. But in a party deeply divided by ideology and rhetoric, the former pro-lifer turned abortion moderate is quietly emerging as the Democrats’ man to watch in the run-up to 2020.
Stewart Lawrence is a consultant and policy analyst.
The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.