This is the story of another Congressman named Ryan who wants to be king. Tim Ryan, forty-three, from Ohio. He’s running against Nancy Pelosi for the position of Minority Leader in the House of Representatives. He will probably lose. But he shouldn’t. The Buckeye State explains what’s wrong with the Democratic Party, and how to fix it.
THE PELOSI PROBLEM
Pelosi is a longtime fixture of Democratic politics, a peerless fundraiser. In this time under siege, is it really responsible to give command of the party over to relatively new blood?
Yes. Yes. A thousand times yes. Pelosi, as shrewd a throat-cutter as ever walked the halls of power, has been the leader of the Congressional Democrats for fourteen years, about ten-thousand eons as the political class reckon time.
And she is part of the problem. Vast amounts of lucre and gala depravity have led us to this fray. The Dems must fight like wild dogs to leave the death spiral. Or they will face another gruesome curb-stomping from the rough bastards who will be accelerator-flooring our national meat truck for the next four years.
For all of her achievements, the former Speaker is an avatar of everything which bedevils the party: its enthrallment by a coastal ruling class which speaks only to itself. The current Democratic Party leadership is not a group which fights for the rights of working and oppressed people, but an institution which exists to propagate its own bankrolling. That its opposite number, the loathsome Republican Party, believes in worse causes, and raises money from worse people, does not diminish the DNC’s failure to meet its moral obligations.
When I talk about coasts versus heartland, you might assume I’m speaking of culture war, but I’m not. That old, dumb idea of blue states as godless havens of chardonnay and soybeans versus gun-totin’ red states was false and idiotic before even David Brooks got his hands on it. It’s not about culture. It’s about class, and the economy, and what happens in the states where jobs are hard to come by. As the historian Rick Perlstein has written, the story of the last several decades is the hollowing out of middle class—everything else is clerking.
And indeed, there is much clerking. If you want to know how many ways smart people can be wrong, I invite you to read all of the immediate pre-and-post election coverage by major thought-leaders. It’s a humbling experience.
All of those immediate post-election think-pieces remind me of actors monologuing into mirrors. I went back to scan the pre-election editorials in the New York Review of Books. It’s like receiving telegrams from Mars. Hell, I’m their target audience, and I find most of these essays alienating, callous, and uninformed. Indifferent to the struggles of ordinary people. Oblivious to why non-deplorable people would vote for Trump. It takes a real strength of character to shame suffering people into not being excited for your candidate, but from what I’ve seen, most of the mainstream media, including media that I love, has this ability in spades.
Oh, they’re not wrong about Trump: he’s a car-wreck. Some of the people who support him are genuinely loathsome. But Americans still voted for him, or chose not to vote for Clinton. No amount of denying this will aid the cause of progress. It does not repair the movement.
We all understand Clinton won the popular vote handily. And if we are honest, we all understand that this does not matter. Clinton never proposed running in a pretend universe with an ideal Constitution. She said she could win in this naughtier world, where our national charter was written by rum-loving slaveholders. You may believe Hillary Clinton is entitled to a great many things, but the power to reshape reality is not one them.
The only way we can change our country, where Trump won, into a different one—where Trump would never have come close to victory—is to discredit the ideas which have brought the party here. The way to get rid of the ideas is to get rid of the people inside the party who peddle them, or symbolize them.
That these people haven’t been pushed out is, as the late Prince would say, a sign ‘o’ the times.
In any decent democracy, in any decent party, the Dem leadership would be brought out to the desert, given a knife, and told that only one of them could be hell-king of the wasteland.
However, in the real America, Pelosi has already declared victory. She claims that two-thirds of the Democratic Congressional membership has pledged their support, along with the Steering Committee and other important interest groups. Perhaps Tim Ryan is delusional to think he has a shot. Indeed, there is some evidence to suggest this candidacy is a feint to make his name well-known, so that he can eventually run for Governor of Ohio.
Yet if the contest doesn’t come now, it must come eventually. Strange, to think it’s arrived so dramatically. Acid bath of intrigue, knives in the palace. The fortress of liberalism under siege. But it has to be. Ancient oaths … eternal pledges … weird quasi-religious Masonic initiations into Georgetown eating clubs … terrible secrets shared between elected representatives … none of it matters. Yes, the fight will be very bloody indeed.
And it has to be Ryan, or someone like Ryan. Which begs the question: why should it go to someone from Ohio, home of racist baseball teams? Ohio has already supplied a majority of our astronauts. Why should they have the Speakership too?
Because Ohio is where the Democratic Party lost its dang head.
WHO IS RYAN?
Tim Ryan is a fairly uninteresting figure. He meditates, does green eating. Was unfortunately pro-life until last year. Describes himself as a Catholic and quarterback. His platform is generically designed to appeal to grassroots members of the Democratic Congress: he has plans to elevate fifteen ordinary members into issue ambassadors, place incumbents who are at risk into positions of notice, carve out a position for new-baby Congressmen who’ve been there for less than three terms. Naturally, he can’t do anything about seniority. No Speaker can.
Ryan’s mentor was Pelosi, the only leader he’s served under since his arrival in the House. But these are desperate times. The air of degradation hovers around Democrats in the capital, causing grown men in paneled rooms to weep openly.
The man who would be Speaker faces a conundrum familiar to anybody who’s ever gotten mugged. Do you want to wager your assets or your life? For Ryan, Ohio is the axle on which his problem turns.
Four years ago, Obama picked Ryan’s district up by twenty-three, easy. This year, the Orangeman had the Rust Belt’s number. He paid the iron price, named the sickness. Polite opinion called the people in the Heartland mutants, but the faithful didn’t care. The undeniable primitive magnetism of a raw cause predominated. The black storm clouds gathered over Ohio. The King of Orange won Tim Ryan’s stomping ground by a cool seven points this time around.
You can imagine what this does to Ryan, a Washington pro in middle-age. Ambition’s dizzy height; the onset of vertigo; the possibility one’s pants are about to disappear, torn off by the hooting public. Why, it would drive any man to needy behavior; you can forgive Congressman Ryan for suddenly adopting the sudden slick charm of a desperate hustler trying to pawn his mother’s best teeth. He who can trade horses best and the fastest will be a god among the beasts of Washington, after all.
In other words, immediately after Trump’s victory, Ryan faced two paths: do nothing, and risk your political life, or do something, and risk your political assets. He made his choice.
THE NATURE OF THE HOUSE
Do you know about the House of Representatives? It’s high school. There are hundreds of these weird preppies and businesspeople from every district of the United States, crawling over each other and gossiping and massaging the truth and playing twelve-dimensional lanyard chess, and the only way to rule or direct them is to shepherd them or persuade them in groups.
So ask yourself, why this guy? Why is it him, making the climb? Why not Steny Hoyer, Dem Minority Whip? Or Sander Levin, the ranking Dem member of Ways and Means, the most powerful committee in the House? Or the senior Democratic members: Conyers, Rangel, Kaptur, Visclosky? Out of a House of 435 people, in an institution that worships length of service, Ryan is 130th in seniority.
Clay. Rayburn. Reed. Cannon. McCormack. Clark. O’Neil. These are the Speakers one must follow to become great within the machine. And they were creatures of tenure. It’s incredibly hard to jump ahead, even for the supremely talented. And this is the case even for representatives who are in safe zones. For instance, California’s 12th district is in San Francisco. It hasn’t carried a Republican since 1949. Democratic without interruption. Pelosi’s district. You see the obstacles.
Right now, probably at the moment I’m typing this, Ryan is looking for his fellow representatives’ phone numbers—scrounging for them, according to reports—to foment an uprising. Two-hundred House members. That’s what he needs to raze Pelosi to the roots. And the question of the day, minute, hour is, “Will he pull it off?”
Unlikely. The Washington Post had two pieces about Ryan. They noted that the last time there was a revolt of substance, Gerald Ford beat Charles Halleck to become the minority leader in the House—and that was in 1964. But in the reign of Trump, all things are possible, and so who knows? He has the right blend of desperation, yearning, middling status, and fear to make his entry into the reptile fight of Congressional leadership politics.
Yet if Ryan fails in this bid, which he seems guaranteed to, his power will wane, whether he runs for Governor or not. There will certainly be a reprisal; Pelosi will have to crush him to keep the jibbering of rebellion quiet. What, aside from fear of an Orange Planet and losing his base of power in Mahoning Valley, has driven him to this risky errand? Even if his goal is raise his own profile, being destroyed by a former Speaker in the public view is unlikely to inspire acclaim or future trust. What can account for his grotesque giddiness taking on an impossible challenge?
Maybe this: The Dems have 60 fewer seats than in 2010. Six years, sixty seats, ten seats a year. There are more powerful Dems, and Dems with more seniority, but they all have too much to lose by challenging the reign.
Ryan also knows that in the upcoming season of weasels, all of the bankable faces in the Dem lineup will vanish away into mystery and legend, like a town drunk who bested a snake in the public square and then disappeared the next day. The usual collection of hacks and scrubs will remain, of course, behind the scenes. But if any time is ripe for a palace coup, it’s now.
As mentioned, Ryan’s Youngstown is in Mahoning County. The chairman of the Mahoning County Democratic Party, David Betras, wrote a long private memo to the Clinton campaign way back in May. According to the Post’s James Hohmann, Betras wrote that “blue collar voters are, to put it mildly, less than enthusiastic about HRC’s positions on trade and the economy.”
Interestingly, Hohmann wrote that “More than a quarter of the people who voted in the March Republican primary” in Mahoning “were previously registered as Democrats,” and Betras “had to kick 18 members off his own Democratic central committee for crossing over to back Trump.” According to those in the know, NAFTA did it, and the cuts at Packard, GM, GE.
“When people are thirsty, they’ll drink dirty water,” Betras wrote. The people of Youngstown turned to the vile billionaire class for their salvation, such was their desperation: “The messages can’t be about ‘job retraining.’ These folks have heard it a million times and, frankly, they think it’s complete and total bulls**t …”
What did the Clinton campaign deploy against Trump’s argument? What masterstroke? A comment about le Donald Dangerous using Chinese steel. Sad!
And this disconnect is why Ryan had to challenge Pelosi. Not just to save himself, or to make himself look good. But because someone in the Democratic Party has to stand for Ohio, and all of the Ohios of this country. Hohmann again:
“No Democrat in my area feels like Nancy Pelosi represents them,” Betras said. “She’s like a distant cousin where you really don’t know her. Yeah, we’re related, but… The coastal elites don’t understand the struggle. It’s like we’re foreign to them, and as a result the people here feel like the Democratic Party is now foreign to them.”
Who cares if Pelosi is the greatest fundraiser in the history of the party? Being great at fundraising is like being one of those pickup guys who learned magic solely to swing with girls. Nobody denies that money is the pure basement crank of modern politics: the secret vitamin that makes it all go. But it’s not a recommendation for leadership.
Does it matter that the Dems had all of the celebrity endorsements written across the sky, or that they caught Trump piling contradiction atop paradox? The Dems lost on the nuts and bolts. The Democratic Party lacks what Betras calls “a core economic message that they had for a long time.” People were losing their pensions and the Secretary kept talking about tone.
“While they look at us as trying to appeal to the donor class and the elites and the coasts and all that stuff, (Trump) said, ‘I don’t need anybody’s money,’” Ryan added. “If you want to resonate with people here who want to change the system, that one line did it.”
We could say in point of fact that Trump does, in fact, need people’s money. He needed the infrastructure that he didn’t pay for, he needed the banks to bail him out and fund his ventures, he needed the free media coverage to become a viable candidate. But we know what he means. And the people in Ohio do too.
The contest is not about winning over the Trump voter, or the wavering Republicans. The game in town is capturing back the Dem voter who has wandered. It’s as easy as listening. And showing a willingness to change.
The professional political class has this make-believe character they love, the mythical centrist. They have summoned them by various magical names: Soccer Mom and NASCAR Dad. They have hunted them on countless moonless nights, in every state of the Union. They have sought them over hill and holler, through glen and dale. By the light of the eternal Applebee’s sign they have pursued their quarry. Not just once, but again and again.
But the people of Michigan, Ohio, Iowa, and Wisconsin are not hollow vessels for polling lunatics to pour their Capra fantasies onto. The plain, whitebread centrist voter is a fantasy, a preoccupation created by people who came to politics through marketing.
Marketing focuses on a fictional everyday consumer. If the marketers had been taught politics first, then they’d know there is no such creature. There are particular people with their peculiar wants and needs. Voters, like the rest of us, operate on emotional intuitions. They have long memories and know when they’re being slighted.
People are killing themselves with opiates in vast numbers. Wal-Mart and big box stores are gutting small businesses, have been for a generation. The mills are closed. And you throw Lena Dunham at them? Jesus! No wonder fate brought the whipsong of Trump down on the Republic. The Rust Belt Dem voters didn’t even have to vote for Trump. They just had to decide not to vote for Secretary Clinton, and by extension, the entire political establishment. The same establishment that the Party seems hellbent on keeping in power.
The workers didn’t go over to Reagan or Trump because they were secret Klansmen. They just stopped voting because the Democratic Party no longer offered them anything that mattered to their lives. Until the Dems come around on that, nothing else matters. Ryan is the beginning. Let’s hope he’s not the end.