Rep. Tim Ryan was already running a campaign for the Senate tailored to Ohio’s increasingly conservative electorate, which made it less than surprising that on Tuesday he ventured onto a Fox News set, territory where most fellow Democrats fear to tread.
In an hour-long town hall, Ryan and his Republican opponent, author and investor J.D. Vance, each took questions from the audience, with anchors Martha MacCallum and Bret Baier moderating.
“We need a tax cut,” Ryan said in response to the first question, which concerned energy prices. It was the kind of answer a Republican might have provided, but with inflation remaining a top concern for voters, centrist Democrats like Ryan have increasingly distanced themselves from progressive proposals and ideas.
Baier asked the audience for a show of hands from those who saw the economy as their top concern. The majority of those in attendance raised their hands — including Ryan, who has depicted himself as a middle-class moderate, fending off culture war attacks from Vance that have aimed to tie the 10-term congressman to House progressives and Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
President Biden has urged Democrats to run on his economic record, but Ryan’s performance on Tuesday was a display of how difficult it is to endorse policies that could take years to ripen. Ryan admitted, for example, that the renewable energy provisions in the Inflation Reduction Act, which he supported, were not going to do much for Americans worried about gas prices.
The measure includes $369 billion for climate-related provisions, but critics say that it will do little to ease inflation in the short run. Without agreeing with those criticisms, Ryan took a conciliatory stance.
“It’s not gonna help you today,” he conceded.
Like many Democratic moderates, Ryan now finds himself caught between a progressive base that is seeking more radical change from Washington and a disenchanted middle that appears to believe that Biden has moved too quickly and too far to the left.
Asked about his position on criminal justice reform — another contentious issue — Ryan once more distanced himself from the progressive wing of his party. “Crime is an issue,” he said. “I don’t care what anybody says about that.” But he also struggled to justify his own support of ending cash bail, a position he endorsed during his brief run for the presidency in 2019.
He made a similar shift on immigration, another area that has flummoxed Democrats who have struggled to negotiate between build-the-wall conservatives and progressives who see many immigration restrictions as fundamentally inhumane.
“I think we need more border patrol, not less,” Ryan said, once more staking out a more centrist position than some of his Democratic colleagues.
Whether these affirmations will be enough remains to be seen. Polls show Vance with a slight lead. The election will be held next Tuesday, with Ohio one of several states — along with Arizona, Nevada and Pennsylvania — expected to decide the composition of Congress for the next two years of the Biden presidency, which could see even more intense partisan battles than the previous two.
Ryan and Vance met in two debates over the last month, clashing over immigration, free trade, abortion and the opioid crisis. They have done little to hide their disdain for one another; Tuesday’s format allowed each to explain his positions without exchanging insults or accusations.
Vance, for his part, used his portion of the town hall to distance himself from controversial positions other Republicans have taken while presenting himself as a committed opponent of the Biden administration. He charged the president with profligate spending, describing the trillions Biden has devoted to coronavirus relief, infrastructure and climate change as “throwing fuel on the fire, which has caused the price of everything to go up.”
Vance also received applause when he defended his support of former President Donald Trump’s baseless charge that the 2020 election had been stolen from him. Vance said that he was not endorsing conspiracy theories but, rather, was taking issue with “big technology companies in bed with the communist Chinese, who are censoring information about American politics.”
If the charge remained imprecise, blaming Silicon Valley and Beijing was a relatively safe proposition in a state whose economy has been enervated by globalization and the digital economy.
More applause came Vance’s way in response to a question about Friday’s attack on Paul Pelosi, who was assaulted in his San Francisco home by an intruder who had been searching for his wife, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who was in Washington at the time.
Vance noted that the suspect, David DePape, is a Canadian national who had overstayed his visa. “My view, very simply, is that we need to deport violent illegal aliens,” he said, denying that increasingly heated rhetoric from Republican politicians and conservative media outlets had contributed to the attack.
Judging purely by the responses in the room, Vance appeared to more readily connect with the audience, his efforts at moderation seemingly coming across as more convincing than did Ryan’s.
During a discussion of education, Vance touched on the cultural wars that have roiled public schooling since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic — but then just as quickly moved past them.
“We need to accept that we made a lot of mistakes,” he said, without delving into specifics.