Fairfield, Iowa — Tim Ryan is running for the 2020 Democratic nomination for president and has a challenging road.
As a congressman from Ohio, he doesn’t have a national name or following, so virtually everyone he meets while campaigning has no idea who he is. Iowa Democrats go into his campaign events with open minds, but it’s up to him to win them over.
In a recent event at the home of retired archaeologist Stan Plum in Fairfield, Iowa, Ryan did just that, impressing many there with his passionate message of reinvigorating America’s middle class.
“We need someone who understands where the economy is going, and has guts and toughness,” he tells them. His voice rising, Ryan says, “We don’t need a savior, we don’t need a superstar, we need a grinder.” Loud applause ensues, filling the Plums' living room. “And I’m a grinder. I get up every day and I work my rear end off.”
Ryan is a 45 years old, has represented a working-class district in Ohio that includes Akron and Youngstown since 2003, and unsuccessfully challenged Nancy Pelosi in 2016 for Democratic House leader. He argues that because of the area he represents — the old “Rust Belt” — he understands well the challenges of a nation going through massive economic change.
“I’ve watched the economy come, and I’ve watched it erode. We watched globalization, we watched automation, we watched jobs go to Mexico, and we watched competition from China, and no one was helping us plug back in to the global economy,” he said.
He isn’t out to bash capitalism, but he claims that it can be a cruel mistress.
“Of course capitalism generates wealth, that’s what it does," he said. "But it wasn’t remembering us, it was concentrating the wealth.”
Ryan asserts the middle class has been cut out of the benefits of the global economy and needs to be “cut in on the deal.”
Ryan cites electric vehicles as one example of how his ideas for growing American industry would work.
“By 2030 there is going to be 30 million electric vehicles made somewhere, and I want them made in the United States," he said. "I want the batteries made here and I want the charging stations made here. I want tax incentives, research from the department of Energy, NASA and the Department of Defense all to incentivize growth from this industry to push the growth into distressed communities and rural America, communities that have been left behind the last 40 years.”
As president, Ryan said, he would sit down with car makers, his Cabinet and “anyone else that needs to be involved and say, 'How do we dominate the electric vehicle market?' "
Ryan asserts that the same approach can be used for solar power, wind power and additive manufacturing.
“I think the country is waiting to have a fundamental shift in the way we think about things," he said. "I will put forth an agenda where we are moving from a surviving mentality to a thriving mentality.”
Ryan said he can appeal to Trump voters because he understands their concerns and their hopes. His language does take on the “Field of Dreams” aspect of a longing for the past that many Trump voters expressed in 2018. Compare Ryan’s words above about globalization with James Earl Jones’ lines from the 1991 film: “America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It’s been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt, and erased again.”
Ryan said he feels the frustration that comes from sometimes incomprehensible change.
“I understand what families are going through," he said. "I know their fears, I know their insecurities, I know they feel left out, but I also know their hopes, I know their dreams. Your fears will be my fears, and your hopes and dreams will be my hopes and dreams.”
Ryan is multi-layered. A former football quarterback whose athletic career was cut short by a knee injury, he now has a strong interest in yoga, mindfulness and nutrition and authored the 2012 book, “A Mindful Nation” and another in 2014 called “The Real Food Revolution.” Asked about this unique background, he explains that he had a priest teach him centering prayer and he also was heavily influenced by former Chicago Bulls coach Phil Jackson.
“I know, a weird combo, a priest and a basketball coach," he said. "I learned meditation, mindfulness and yoga. ... I’m really the only candidate talking about food as it relates to health.”
Ryan also detailed his other positions.
Health Care: “We definitely need the public option, but we’ve got to start incentivizing doctors, patients, health care systems, and insurance companies to keep us healthy. We need to move from a sick care system to a health care system.”
Climate change and the environment: “The clock is ticking, there’s no question. We have to align environmental incentives with financial incentives. We can’t do this as a centralized government program.” He warns that work on climate change cannot be anti-business: “I think we’ve got to not be the party of anti-free enterprise. The government needs to come in and set the parameters.”
Guns: “I am for an assault weapon ban, background checks, studying gun violence through the Centers for Disease Control (and Prevention), and the social and emotional learning in the schools is very helpful. Seventy percent of (shooter) kids say they were bullied.”
Rural Kansas: “I’m going to tell someone in rural Kansas that we’re talking about the soil. What’s happened to the soil the past 30 years? Can we get together over soil? Can we get together over targeted public investments to facilitate downtown? Can you help us build a new economy around electric vehicles, wind and solar?”
Ryan is aggressive but optimistic: “Every issue I’m dealing with here I’m looking at how we can play offense. I’m tired of us playing defense. I’m tired of us being back on our heels. It’s time. We don’t need to necessarily have a bigger government, but we need a more active, pro-active government.”
In Fairfield, at least, Ryan’s grinding quest for the presidency has worked. Before he got into his car to make the 100-mile drive to Des Moines for another event, a local Democrat sidled up to him: “Next time you come, let me know and we’ll get a bigger space. I’m sure we can fill it.”