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Why Sen. Sherrod Brown loves to quote Tolstoy

At a Monitor Breakfast, Senator Brown of Ohio talked about a possible presidential run - and how his favorite Russian author informs his progressive politics.

Michael Bonfigli/The Christian Science Monitor
Sen. Sherrod Brown (D) of Ohio sits with reporters at a Monitor Breakfast roundtable in Washington on Feb. 12 to discuss trade, Medicare, and the possibility of running for president in 2020.

The joke about US senators is that they wake up in the morning, look in the mirror, and see a future president.

Sherrod Brown was never one to do that. More “workhorse” than “show horse,” the Democratic senator from Ohio has made a career of focusing on the needs of working people in a state that epitomizes Middle America.

Now Senator Brown is thinking of running for the top job, and the political world is on high alert. After all, if the Democrats can grab Ohio away from President Trump, they could win the election.

So when Brown walked into his first Monitor Breakfast on Feb. 12 – midway through a “listening tour” of early primary states – the assembled reporters were ready to play “20 Questions.” What does he think of the Green New Deal? Medicare for All? And, of course, what about 2020?

Brown kept us guessing. He’s still listening – to voters, his family, his heart – as he ponders the life-altering prospect of a presidential campaign. On the ambitious policy ideas championed by some of his colleagues, Brown would not commit.

“I don’t need to co-sponsor every bill that others think they need to co-sponsor to show my progressive politics,” said the three-term senator, who has held elective office almost nonstop since he was 22. “I want to get something done for people now.”

Example: Let’s lower eligibility for Medicare to age 50, he says, and not try to move the entire country on to government-run health insurance all at once.

Intriguingly, Brown has been a Trump ally on trade. Early on, the senator worked with Robert Lighthizer – a fellow Ohioan and the president’s special trade representative – to formulate a replacement for NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement. Brown hoped a new agreement would do more for workers, but he and his friends in organized labor aren’t happy with it, and the agreement is in trouble in Congress.

What if Trump threatens to pull the US out of NAFTA to try to force passage of the new agreement?

“That would be really stupid,” Brown says.

So much for the Brown-Trump collaboration on trade. And truth be told, Brown sounds ready to take on Mr. Trump. He calls the president a racist, though adding that he’s not leveling that charge at Trump supporters.

If Brown does run, he won’t be your typical blow-dried candidate. He proudly notes that his suit was made by union workers in Cleveland, a few miles from his house. When a HuffPost reporter brings up Brown’s distinctive look and sound, the senator says this: “That shaggy hair, as you say, and gravelly voice will work in union halls in the industrial Midwest.”

There also aren’t too many American politicians who majored in Russian studies (at Yale) and quote Leo Tolstoy. At the end of our breakfast, Brown cites Tolstoy’s novel “Resurrection,” and its discussion of “the egalitarianism of human beings, of the human spirit.”

“It really informs the way I look at the world, that people really are equal and people should have equal chance and opportunity,” Brown says. “That's increasingly informed my politics.”

As a Russian major myself, I told Brown I was glad we ended on Tolstoy.

The C-SPAN video of our breakfast can be viewed here. My write-up, including excerpts of Brown’s comments, is here.

As always, the reporters around the table seized on different aspects of our discussion.

“Sherrod Brown separates from Dem pack on Medicare, 'Green New Deal' proposals,” wrote Politico.

The Hill newspaper wrote about how Trump’s “new NAFTA” will face strong Democratic opposition.

Let me also add that I’m glad our breakfasts are back after a hiatus for the holidays and the government shutdown. On March 12, Rep. Adam Schiff (D) of California, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, will join us. And on April 3, Larry Kudlow, director of Trump’s National Economic Council, will be our guest.

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