This week marks a particularly eventful moment in American politics, with the Senate conducting the impeachment trial of Donald Trump and the Democratic candidates for President—including four senators, who will vote on impeachment—holding their final campaign events before the Iowa caucuses, on February 3rd. Bernie Sanders, who lost Iowa to Hillary Clinton by the narrowest of margins in 2016, now appears likely to win the state, with former Vice-President Joe Biden running just behind him.
To discuss the latest turns in American politics, I recently spoke by phone with Connie Schultz, a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist whose work often addresses her working-class background and progressive politics. Though Schultz, a lifelong Midwesterner, has spent much of her career writing about the region, she has an insider’s view on the workings of Washington: she is married to Senator Sherrod Brown, of Ohio, who considered running for the Democratic nomination last year. Schultz’s last book, “. . . And His Lovely Wife,” chronicles her time on the Senate campaign trail with Brown in 2005 and 2006. This June, she will publish her first novel, “The Daughters of Erietown.” During our conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity, we discussed Midwestern Democrats’ concerns about Medicare for All, Schultz’s reservations about some Sanders supporters, and what the impeachment trial has revealed about Senate Republicans.
One interesting dynamic of this Democratic primary has been a lot of élite concern about the field, coupled with polls revealing that voters are mostly happy with the choice of candidates. How do you understand that gap?
So how are you defining élites?
Certain billionaires, people close to Barack Obama, many media analysts.
That’s fair. Depending on where I am walking and with whom I am talking, I can certainly hear that at times. But I also remind everyone that this is what it means to have a Democratic primary. It’s always like this. I grew up in a union family, and I am used to complaints about the Democratic field, as a journalist covering it for so many years and obviously as someone married to a United States senator. I just feel accustomed to hearing this and am not too concerned right now.
You mention billionaires, and of course you have two in the race now. Is [Tom] Steyer a billionaire or just a multimillionaire?
It’s a question we have asked about Trump.
For them to argue that the field needed them—I am sorry, I never quite understood that. But it is not an uncommon thing to hear right now. You have been covering politics for a long time, haven’t you?
Yeah, I guess almost fifteen years.
So you have heard this before.
I didn’t hear it in 2008.
Oh, that’s interesting. Well, we didn’t have as many candidates, of course.
I don’t know that that’s the reason we didn’t hear it in 2008, though.
Why do you think it was that we didn’t hear it as much?
There was a unique, generational political talent in Barack Obama, and there was also someone who was perceived as a strong candidate of enormous accomplishment in Hillary Clinton. Obviously, when the rubber hit the road in 2016, things became more complicated. But putting aside the complaints of billionaires, I don’t think it is crazy that people feel anxiety about this field.
I don’t think it’s crazy. I guess I think it’s not unexpected, no matter who is running. I feel like the disclosure is so important here. You obviously know who I am married to, and you know that we have been hearing this probably more than average because there were people who wanted Sherrod to run. But that may be why I tend to be a little more relaxed about it
Another way of phrasing this: One thing we don’t really see is a candidate like your husband—an office-holder in the Midwest with a more economically populist message. Given what needs to be done to defeat Trump, that seems noticeable.
Well, certainly, if you talk to some of the candidates, they would tell you that they absolutely fill all the gaps, as you know. [Amy] Klobuchar would certainly make that argument, being a Midwesterner. If you listen to Sanders, you would never think anybody had to be from the Midwest. I am not going to make the claim—and I don’t know if this is why you called me—that the only person who could effectively defeat Donald Trump, or who would be the ideal candidate, is my husband.
I wasn’t asking for that at all. But I guess what I am saying is that there is a reason people wanted your husband to run, because he filled a certain niche, and I am not sure that niche is currently being filled.
I appreciate that, and certainly I hear that regularly. I think there are a number of people in this field right now who can beat Donald Trump, and I think it all depends on turnout. I just had two young students in my office today talking to me about their concerns about the election, and I said, “Look, if most of you register to vote, the election is won.” If young people registered in large numbers, first of all, everybody would be talking about issues they care about, including climate change and student debt. You’re not hearing as much about it—and you’re certainly never going to hear about it from the Republicans—at the rate they want, unless they start voting.
How would you differentiate your politics, or Senator Brown’s, from Elizabeth Warren’s and Sanders’s, respectively?
I am not going to speak for Sherrod, first of all. I will say that I don’t see the point in tearing down other candidates. Sherrod is from the Midwest, and he is in a state—and this is a little different than anyone else, I suppose—that Trump won by a little over eight points, and Sherrod ran for reëlection two years later and won by seven points. Sherrod never sat in on the focus groups, but I did, and we did focus groups of Trump voters throughout 2018. We would separate them by gender—you always separate by gender if women are ever going to talk. But what was interesting to me at that time is that the male Trump voters were essentially lost to us, no matter what. I remember, weeks after John McCain died, hearing two of them talk about how he wasn’t a war hero because he got captured, which is absolutely parroting Donald Trump.
But the female voters started to peel off over family separations and health care. Since then, we have had the horrible mass murder in Dayton, and I wouldn’t be surprised if those focus groups now would have us hearing about guns more than we did before. So that has left me optimistic about some Trump voters. And that’s why I have always thought Ohio can still be in play, too.
The debate over health care has shifted since 2018 from saving Obamacare to passing Medicare for All. Do you worry how that debate will play in the Midwest?
I worry about this. If your platform is going to be Medicare for All, you are going to lose a lot of Midwestern voters, including union voters, who like their health-care plans. They hear that—no matter how you explain it—as losing the insurance they have come to depend on and have negotiated for. These are union contracts. That’s what makes me worry about Medicare for All. And also just the cost of it. For some reason, some of the candidates talk about how they are going to pay for it. That’s not what voters are listening to. What they are listening to is what is going to happen to their health-care plans. I have always thought—independent of my husband—that incremental is the way to go on this. We can eventually get there over time, but I worry that running on it in 2020 is a losing cause for us.