Tim Ryan: Can a moderate white male from the midwest win the ‘yoga vote’ to stand out in 2020?

Ohio congressman has written books on mindfulness and food, and insists it is no gimmick. He speaks to

Monday 13 May 2019 08:36
Tim Ryan would be first congressman elected president since 1880
Tim Ryan would be first congressman elected president since 1880

There is no polite way of putting it, so best get straight to it.

Tim Ryan may be smart and charismatic, he may be from the electorally crucial midwest and have a freight train of bright ideas. But as Democrats look to pick a challenger to Donald Trump in 2020, how does a middle-aged, middle-of-the-road white man stand out in a field of more than 20?

“I’ve a big vision for the country. I have the opportunity to bring the country together. I’d do well in some of the districts where Trump won and bring some of those people back over, and start healing the country,” he says.

“The people of Iowa are going to have a chance to hear from all of us. They’re very engaged. We’re going to lay out our agenda see what happens.”

With just a hint of derision, he adds: “I guarantee you, I am not going to get lost in the shuffle.”

There are 22 candidates seeking the party’s nomination, bookended in the most recent national poll by Morning Consult by Joe Biden on 40 per cent and, at the other end, by the likes of Eric Swalwell and Marianne Williamson who poll at less than 1 per cent. That survey puts Ryan in 11th slot, squeezed between senator Kirsten Gillibrand, and former Obama housing official Julian Castro.

As it stands, Ryan can expect to take part in one of the first two primary debates scheduled for next month. That is where he, along with the other lower-profile candidates, must seize the chance to make an impact and attach a ballistic missile to their brand. Despite its importance, the congressman says he has prepared no special strategy.

“People have to look and say, ‘Who’s the person in the state who can go toe to toe with Donald Trump and beat him?’” he says. “You never know how these things play out, who catches fire. All I know is, if you look back at the history of the primaries [and who ends up with the nomination], it’s never who’s winning nine months out.”

Ryan, 45, is speaking to The Independent from Youngstown, Ohio, the city where he studied and which is part of his constituency. Once a thriving industrial hub on the Mahoning River, it has long been a sorrowful exemplar for the unemployment and despair that swept through the Rust Belt as manufacturing jobs moved overseas in the 1980s and 1990s. In 1930, the population was 170,000; today it stands at 67,000.

In 2016, many of the disconsolate white working class voted for Trump, who took the battleground state of Ohio from Hillary Clinton, though Mahoning County, which includes Ryan’s Youngstown, voted for the Democrat 49.3-46.4.

Whatever national recognition Ryan has earned to this point is associated with his failed 2016 challenge to Nancy Pelosi to lead the Democrats in the House of Representatives. He says he respects Pelosi greatly, and that there was nothing personal about the decision to run against her, but felt that after the party failed to retake the House, it stopped focussing on helping the working class. He said he thought the party was now refocussed.

Youngstown’s population once stood at 170,000 but today is just 67,000

In Ohio, where Ryan was first elected in 2002, he has been a promoter of new industries such electric vehicles, AI and solar energy, something he believes could pay the kinds of wages working people once enjoyed.

He said Trump had won over voters by promising to bring back jobs to the heartland, but had failed to deliver. He accepts the loss of decent jobs was not a recent phenomenon, and that blame for their loss to countries such China cannot be laid at Trump’s feet, though he does attack the president for not fighting to win them back.

“Look at China. They’re dominating the electric vehicle market. They control 40 per cent of it. They’re dominating the solar market – they control 60 per cent of that. They’re running circles around around us when it goes to 5G,” he says.

“They’re on the move and we’re falling behind, because the president is distracted. He’s more interested in culture wars. He’s more interested in running a reality TV show out of the White House than he is in actually creating a long-term industrial policy.”

Ryan, a Catholic who is married to a schoolteacher and lives with their three children, has moderated his position on two issues of particular interests to Democrats. He was opposed to abortion until 2015, and he previously received an A rating from the National Rifle Association, which indicated his votes were in line with the gun lobbying group’s agenda. Following the 2017 Las Vegas mass shooting in which 58 people were killed, he donated $20,000 that his campaign received from the NRA to groups supporting gun control.

Many of the people who voted for Trump in 2016 were middle class, suburban white women, who had previously opted for Barack Obama. Several reports have suggested Ryan could do well by tapping into this so called “yoga vote” demographic.

As it is, Ryan has not only written books on food (The Real Food Revolution) and mindfulness (A Mindful Nation) but is also a regular practitioner of hot yoga, something he manages despite his 6ft 4in frame.

Tim Ryan: How does a moderate white male from the midwest stand out among 20 rivals?

“We need to look at some of these alternative, integrated health approaches. We’ve seen things like yoga have tremendous impact on our veterans, who have come back with PTS,” he says. “I do hot yoga. I love it. It’s been very good for me. I have an old, beat-up, former quarterback body, so hot yoga does me right.”

Ryan insists this is not a gimmick. He says he wants to promote healthier lifestyles and supports programmes such as emotional wellness for schoolchildren. He also estimates perhaps 40 million people in America practise yoga.

“I think a lot of women who may have voted for Trump in 2016 may be looking elsewhere, and they see health and wellness as a real issue, and prevention as a real issue, and they’re worried about the kind of food their kids eat. And they’d be open to a candidate who’s talking about these things.”

Sometimes, says Ryan, Democrats have been having the wrong conversation. On healthcare, for instance, there is rightly much attention on expanding insurance coverage, but much less discussion around preventative medicine.

“Seventy-five per cent of our healthcare care costs are for chronic diseases that are largely preventable. So the national conversation needs to be about how do we get a little bit healthier so we can make a dent in the two to three trillion dollars we’re spending on diseases that can be prevented,” he says. The Centres for Disease Control, the US’s pre-eminent public health body, suggests the figure may be as high as 90 per cent, of an annual total of $3.3 trillion (£2.54 trillion).

Ryan adds: “Is it liberal or conservative? I don’t know. Sounds like commonsense to me.”

While a number of Democrats running for 2020 have supported calls for Trump’s impeachment, Ryan says he is “not there yet”, even though such a demand may be popular among younger voters. He believes he will still be able to appeal to young people “when they hear me and they hear my agenda around climate change, around criminal justice, around having an urban Marshall Plan [the US’s post World Two programme to help Western Europe] to get into our communities of colour and make some real investment, my agenda on food and health and wellness, and social and emotional learning in the school”.

He adds: “It’s about the future. So I think we’re going to do ok. I just need to continue to meet them.”

Ryan faces an intensely difficult challenge as he chases the nomination. Not only does he have a fraction of the name recognition of many of his rivals, he also has just a tiny proportion of their fundraising heft.

Also, at a time when progressives within the Democratic Party, along with women and people of colour, are more influential than ever before, he believes there is a path to victory for a moderate, working class white man from the midwest.

He also recognises that, were he to go on and actually win the presidency, he would be the first sitting congressman to do so since James A Garfield in 1881, who served just six months before being assassinated.

“And where was he from?” Ryan asks, before answering for himself. “Ohio.”

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