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Searching for the Buckeye Base

Ohio’s Senate debate saw a Democrat trying to distance himself from the national party.

Democratic Ohio Senate Candidate Tim Ryan Campaigns Ahead Of Tuesday's Primary
U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan (D-OH), Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate in Ohio, attends a rally in support of the Bartlett Maritime project, a proposal to build a submarine service facility for the U.S. Navy, on May 2, 2022 in Lorain, Ohio. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

It was always an option for American politicians, but Donald J. Trump made it a uniform. In Monday night’s Ohio Senate debate in Cleveland—“what will be the only statewide debate for Ohio’s open seat,” according to the local news moderators—both Rep. Tim Ryan and J.D. Vance went with the dark navy suit, white shirt, and big and bold red tie that a different kind of magazine might call the former president’s signature look. Vance, of course, was launched to national fame in large part because his memoir offered coastal readers a glimpse of Trump country. Ohio has become a metonym of sorts for “the base,” and Tim Ryan’s team finds itself in the tricky position of appealing to Trump voters while condemning the MAGA movement as extremist. The red tie is a no-brainer, but it’s not much to work with. 

Ryan has a beat dog look about him under the best of circumstances, and he looked well spooked before the debate even began. Considering the obvious challenge of presenting himself as a moderate change agent, he had good reason to. While Vance has never held elected office, two decades in D.C. is a long track record, the sort that makes suggestions of cleaning house sound a little funny. Exactly how many decades does a politician need to be in storage on Capitol Hill before we consider him past his expiration date? At one point Vance said, “We’re getting close to Halloween, and Tim Ryan has put on a costume, where he pretends to be a reasonable moderate, but in fact—he says he stands up to his own party—the last two Congresses, you voted with Nancy Pelosi and Joe Biden 100 percent.” 


Ryan went out of his way to align himself with Trump on trade and manufacturing during the debate, but that and similar populist appeals throughout only raise the question: if Trump was right on so much, why not vote for the guy he endorsed? As Vance said of support for tariffs against China to help American manufacturers, “and now Tim Ryan supports [them]. And I’m glad that you do, too, but of course in 2018, 2019, 2020, you opposed the tariffs that started to bring some of that manufacturing and industrial base back to Ohio.” In response to a question as to whether Democratic spending is contributing to inflation, Ryan described it as bipartisan infrastructure investment that would bring back jobs and cause positive trickle-down effects. When he said, “What I’ve been proposing is a significant tax cut for working people and small businesses. Put money in people’s pockets,” one’s head began to swim. Is this still the Republican primary? Welcome to Ohio, 2022. Yet asked specifically if Biden policies have led to the inflation crisis, Ryan said, “I think everyone’s to blame.” That seems a little unfair to put on people trying to pay for groceries. 

Stepping back to look at the debate itself, Monday’s little television event illustrated not just the ongoing realignment of American political discourse prompted by Trump’s 2015 campaign, but the continued nationalization of American politics. While of course a Senate race is inherently more national than a House election, the aesthetics of the debate were small-screen presidential, not Ohioan. Stationary cameras, more than usually visible makeup, messy desks, and a tiny studio reminded the viewer this was local television, but the consortium of Ohio news broadcasters putting it on wanted desperately to be CNN. Perhaps that was inevitable: Ryan briefly ran for president in 2019 and Vance was a national political figure before announcing his candidacy. But anything from a Buckeye logo to Skyline Chili on set might have been a visual reminder that the senator from Ohio will be in the Senate to represent the state of Ohio. 

The candidates did their best to make that clear in strikingly similar closing statements, but American rhetoric and oratory is in sorry shape. That precedes the digital age, but the social media ecosystem hasn’t helped. Monday’s senatorial debate, with a format of five-minute topic blocks “proposed by the Ryan campaign and agreed to by the Vance campaign,” fell into the same slough as every presidential debate. Ryan and Vance both spent as much time trying to correct and clarify the digital record—whether in response to soundbites or advertisements or what the other had said—as they did actually discussing the issues or projecting a vision for the future. When a topic block was stuck on what exactly either had meant by a previous statement he may or may not have made, there wasn’t time to arrive at a conclusion before moving on to a new subject. Viewers were left to decide which candidate was being shady based on their own preconceptions and homework they’d already done: and also based on the candidate’s apparent confidence, a contest that Vance won handily (Ryan’s eyebagged stare got wider and wider as what must have felt like a very long hour wound on). 

Discussion was most substantive on foreign policy and abortion, perhaps because that is where Ryan cannot even pretend to tack to the middle and instead must pivot to calling Vance and conservatives extremists. These people burn books, Ryan suggested at least twice. Of the Supreme Court overturning Roe in Dobbs and states restricting the killing of the innocent? “This is the largest governmental overreach in the history of our lifetime.” As Vance said in response, offering support for Lindsay Graham’s federal 15-week ban, “We’re talking about 5-month-old babies, fully formed babies who can feel pain. No civilized country in the world allows elective abortion that late in pregnancy; I don’t think the United States should be an exception.” I confess I was disappointed by Vance’s concession regarding abortion for the now-notorious case of a 10-year-old Ohio girl raped by an illegal alien, but I have the luxury of not seeking to be a democratically elected legislator in a post-Christian society, and so on this issue can, like Shakespeare, consider the mob a dumb and brutish thing, changeable as the tides, blind to divine justice. 

When the debate turned to foreign policy the conversation continued its darker turn, as a moderator asked what response America should make if Putin were to use nuclear weapons in Ukraine. Ryan said the U.S. should respond in a way that is “strong” and “aggressive,” eventually invoking the threat of a possible invasion of Poland, as if the book-burning bit hadn’t been enough to fill out what he means to suggest by “extremist.” For his part, Vance reiterated his focus on the border and domestic needs. “Everybody in the Biden administration seems to be sleepwalking into a nuclear war,” Vance said, calling for more efforts to be made toward de-escalation. On Taiwan, like Biden, Ryan seemed to have already committed to military intervention, saying, “I believe that we should,” when asked about an American response to a Chinese invasion. Meanwhile, Vance reiterated America’s deterrence posture of strategic ambiguity, and suggested that the United States focus on microprocessor manufacturing to get ourselves in a position where we don’t have to rely on Taiwan so much, and so have more options. 

J.D. Vance will win, I think, and there will be a red wave nationally. The only statewide debate for Ohio’s open Senate seat showed a Democrat trying to distance himself as much as he could from his party without throwing a Democratic president under the bus, while trying to align himself as much as possible with Trump voters yet still calling Americans who want to Make America Great Again extremists. It’s an impossible pretzel to get a man properly into, let alone out of. Ryan wants to present himself as “a generational change,” but as Vance said, “Tim, you’ve been in Congress for 20 years and the border problem has gotten worse and worse and worse. I don’t care about what you want to do, Tim. I care about: what have you done?” And again, “I admire the spirit of service. What I don’t admire is the failure of accomplishment.” And again, “Twenty years ago, I enlisted in the United States Marine Corps. That very same year, Tim Ryan went to Washington, D.C., where he has been failing at his basic job for twenty years.” There’s Tim Ryan, in his dark suit and bright red tie, and sad, sad eyes.