The Ticket: Senator Sherrod Brown on the Coronavirus Chaos

Senator Sherrod Brown discusses the Trump administration’s response to the pandemic and what he thinks Congress needs to do now.

Senator Sherrod Brown walking.
Zach Gibson / Getty

For Senator Sherrod Brown, getting Washington to focus on his central cause, which he calls “the dignity of work,” was hard enough before the current crisis. Now, like everyone else in Congress, the Ohio Democrat is rushing to figure out what exactly the government should do to help the millions of Americans who could lose their jobs in the days and weeks ahead.

Brown has made a career out of being a practical progressive. He strongly defends the role of government in making people’s lives better, even as he has opposed, for example, Medicare for All, which he doesn’t think will improve the health-care system quickly enough.

But when it comes to the COVID-19 outbreak, Brown says, the government has been maddeningly shortsighted. Back in May 2018, he wrote a letter to President Donald Trump warning of the consequences of closing down the White House pandemic office. More recently, he’s directed his criticism at the Senate. Frustrated by how long the upper chamber took to pass an economic-relief package, Brown ripped into Majority Leader Mitch McConnell on the Senate floor earlier this week.

Brown has spent decades warning about the risks of scaling back the government. But the extent of the dysfunction exposed in the past two weeks has shocked even him. “I know our public-health infrastructure is much undermined by conservative budgets, and Trump’s incompetence and wanting to blame everybody else,” he told me Thursday. “But even with that, I would have thought we would have been able to overcome this a little better than we have so far.”

He is also warning fellow progressives to focus on direct, immediate help for people who need it most—not an immediate overhaul of the system. “Use these days to prove [the benefit of] what we’ve had in the past and what we can have in the future,” he said, after driving home to Cleveland once the Senate recessed on Wednesday, “and I think you’ll see the kind of structural change in our society that most of the country wants, even if they don’t say it now. An overwhelming percentage of the country will appreciate and benefit from it as the years go on.”

Our full interview can be heard on the latest episode of The Ticket: Politics From The Atlantic.

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This transcript has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Edward-Isaac Dovere: You have expressed a lot of frustration with what is going on. Do you think your colleagues in Congress are up to the task here?

Sherrod Brown: It’s a challenge that nobody expected of this severity, and I think nobody really was prepared for it. I’ve spent much of that last few days on roundtable conference calls with public-health and hospital and public-transit [officials] for each community. They plan for disasters, but nobody planned for anything this big. So it’s not easy. I look at the governor of Ohio, a Republican. I’m a Democrat who has really stepped up. [Ohio] Governor [Mike] DeWine has done this right. He’s [displayed] experience and character. And I think you contrast that with the president of the United States, who had neither.

Dovere: Everywhere around the world is going through this. There are things that clearly caught the Trump administration and President Trump himself completely unprepared and off guard. But nowhere in the world got it right--how much of this is fair to put the burden on the Trump administration?

Brown: The answer is yes, but the answer is, it’s obviously not one president’s fault. This president could have started doing a lot of the things he’s now doing in December, instead of just dismissing [the outbreak] in a contemptuous sort of way and having all his media acolytes do the same.

The U.S. has been the leader on dealing with global health—health issues and challenges. We send doctors, we send nurses, we organize others, we help fund things. Other countries have been part of it, but one of the great things about this country: We were a world leader in that. And we’ve bungled that.

Granted, Italy didn’t do this right. South Korea did it better. But if we had had the kind of leadership where, in November maybe, Dr. [Timothy] Ziemer [the former head of a global-health-security team within the National Security Council] could have gone to the president and said, “Look [at] what we’re seeing in China. How do we mobilize the world to do something?” You get public-health officials involved. You get the testing going, the personal protective equipment. You start alerting people that this is a potential public-health crisis. No society is naturally ready for something like this. That’s what government is there for.

That’s why I’m a guy who believes the power of government really does make lives better. I wear on my lapel a canary [pin given] to me by a steelworker. It depicts to me how we live 25 years longer in the United States than we did a hundred years ago because of public health, fundamentally. And we have lost that mission. It’s not just Trump, of course, not even just conservative politicians who underfund it. It’s really all of us [who] let it happen.

Dovere: What do you say to your colleagues who have been saying, “We’ve got time to do this”? Since the Senate went into recess last weekend, there have been over 6,000 new cases reported.

Brown: Yeah, I mean, saying to somebody, “How could you have been so stupid?” is not really the best way to convince them.

Dovere: This has all been changing so quickly. What’s it been like in the Senate?

Brown: [Last week] most of the Senate, both parties, sat in a hearing room, shoulder to shoulder, close to each other. In front of the room, only four or five feet from the front row, sat seven or eight public-health officials—most of them were doctors. This was like 10 days ago. That’s how fast it’s changed. I mean, nobody stood up, including me, and said, “What are we doing sitting so close and talking to each other?”

Dovere: You’re back in Cleveland. What does this look like on the ground?

Brown: There’s a wonderful Lincoln line. His staff wanted him to stay in the White House and win the war and preserve the union. He said, “No, I’ve got to go and get my public-opinion bath.” He would do that regularly. That’s my job. I try to do it as often as I can. I’m not doing it [in person] now, of course. The best way I always thought to do it was to go to Youngstown or to go to Ashtabula or Toledo or Mansfield and sit with 15 people, a cross section of the community, or a group of veterans or a group of teachers, and just listen to them for an hour and a half. I’ve been doing that by phone the last three days.

Everybody I talk to is so concerned about what’s happening with the economy. One guy runs a bunch of restaurants. His revenues are down by 80 or 90 percent. We’re seeing that everywhere. The goal here is to protect their workers, make sure they’re not foreclosed on, make sure they get health care when [they] lose their jobs, make sure they have enough money directly from the federal government if necessary—and it is necessary—[so] they can go on with their lives.

Dovere: You have several ideas for bills that you’ve been proposing. How do you prioritize among the priorities?

Brown: Whatever relief package we do starts with workers and making sure that they can go forward with their lives, and raise their children, and stay in their homes, and have enough food, and have an expanded Medicaid or whatever they need for regular health care—let alone the coronavirus. That’s how you start. I see it all through the prism of the dignity of work.

Dovere: You’re part of a bill with Senators Cory Booker and Michael Bennet that would [give] a cash infusion [to individual Americans]. Why is that the right way to approach this?

Brown: It’s one of the right ways. A number of Republicans, including [Treasury] Secretary Mnuchin and the president and a handful of senators, are saying start at $1,000. What Senators Booker and Bennet and I are saying is: Make it $2,000 right now. Then a second payment of $1,500 next quarter, and $1,000 after that.

For some, particularly conservative politicians, [the thinking is], “Okay, we did that. We’re done with this.” Well, to us, [the cash infusion] is not the most important component. It’s what we do now, but the most important components are scaling up unemployment insurance, and that means getting it to people quicker. And it needs to be more generous. It means an earned-income-tax-credit expansion.

This terrible pandemic is all about the government response. Everybody’s now realizing government can actually do really good things for people, to save them.

Dovere: Other progressives see an opportunity here to put in place a lot of things that progressives have been talking about for a long time. Bernie Sanders is saying that [the outbreak] makes the case for a Medicare for All system, which is something that you were not for. Is this an opportunity for progressives to do something massive?

Brown: Well, I think the public overwhelmingly agrees, and sees more clearly now, how government is a positive force in people’s lives. I don’t think you quite want to look at this as an opportunity, because it looks a little seedy to say, as some have said, “Well, we’ve got to use this crisis as an opportunity to advance progressive causes.” I think that just doesn’t sit well with the public.

But like that old civil-rights leader said, “Don’t tell me what you believe. Show me what you do; I’ll tell you what you believe.” In showing what unemployment insurance does for people, showing what expanded Medicaid does, showing what earned income tax credit does—which rewards work, but also helps those who are unable to work or haven’t found a job … Use these days to prove [the benefit of] what we’ve had in the past and what we can have in the future, and I think you’ll see the kind of structural change in our society that most of the country wants, even if they don’t say it now. An overwhelming percentage of the country will appreciate and benefit from it as the years go on.

Dovere: You were in the House after September 11 when Congress rushed the PATRIOT Act through. You were in the Senate in 2008 when Democrats were seen as giving in too much in the rush to pass TARP. What are the lessons [for] those legislating right now?

Brown: The mistakes Congress made and the White House made were because of fear: the fear of terrorism, fear of what was next in the implosion of the economy in 2008. And politicians don’t make good decisions when [they’re informed by] fear.

Dovere: Are you surprised at how fragile everything has proven to be?

Brown: I’ve been surprised by how fragile our democracy appears, with the threat that this president has done what he’s done. I don’t think we’ve lost. I think we’re going to beat Trump. And I think our democracy is strong, but it’s not nearly as strong as probably most of us thought. And we’re not as immune from disaster. I can’t help thinking about climate change in that context. I guess the human mind doesn’t prepare for the worst case very well, at least collectively, as a government, and as a society. But I was surprised. I know our public-health infrastructure is much undermined by conservative budgets and Trump’s incompetence and wanting to blame everybody else. But even with that, I would have thought we would have been able to overcome this a little better than we have so far.

Dovere: Since you brought up how fragile our democracy is—are you confident that President Trump will not try to change that the election is on November 3?

Brown: I don’t think he can. I think he can try. I think he will sow all those doubts in people. It’s pretty stunning how loyal his base is and how fearful Republican politicians are of him. I understand that once he is no longer president, he’s going to continue in all likelihood to roil the waters and question everything. But we’re a pretty resilient country. And I think over time that [will fall] on deafer and deafer, fewer and fewer ears. But I think it’s going to make governing much harder in 2021. I do believe he’ll roil the waters and continue to undermine our faith in government as he’s done. And that’s maybe the worst thing he’s done, made such a huge swath of people think the government is always ill-intentioned and you in the media are never to be trusted. And that to me is perhaps the biggest concern of all this. And that’s why a decisive win in November is so very, very, very important.