Intimate Conversations with America’s Change-Makers
Burn the Boats is an award-winning podcast featuring intimate conversations with change-makers from every walk of life. Host Ken Harbaugh interviews politicians, authors, activists, and others about the most important issues of our time.
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Tim Ryan: I call it the ultimate prevention because all the stupid stuff you say...if you can get a half a beat where you can catch that stuff, a lot of people can offer some positive things, even conservatives and Republicans. They're not always wrong and let's find where we can work together.
KH: I’m Ken Harbaugh, and this is Burn the Boats, a podcast about big decisions. On Burn the Boats, I interview political leaders and other history makers about choices they confront when failure is not an option.
My guest today, Congressman Tim Ryan, represents Ohio's 13th congressional district. He is known across the state and probably across the country for his fiery floor speeches in Congress, championing working families and taking on the Trump administration. He is also the author of A Mindful Nation, a book that's a couple years old now, but in my mind, stands out among the many books written by political leaders because of its subject matter, mindfulness and meditation, which is maybe more important now than ever. Tim, we'll make sure to get to that, but you know we got to talk politics first. Welcome to Burn the Boats.
TR: Thank you. Thanks for having me, Ken.
KH: I want to start by asking you about Trump and Ohio. He really seems to have a thing for this state, and he's not always kind to it. But I want to get your reaction to the shifting sentiments, not just in Ohio, but outside the state, about whether Ohio is still a bellwether. It used to be that as Ohio went, so went the nation. The New York Times used to have a staffer permanently assigned to Stark County, which your district partly covers, because they knew if they could get a read on Stark County and the surrounding areas, they could get a read on the political direction of the country. But you talk to those pundits now and you get the sense that Ohio is being written off. Are they wrong?
TR: Yes. Yes. Very much so, and I think you're seeing it beared out in the polls, both for the presidential and for a couple key congressional races that we have. So you see Biden inching up in the polls in Ohio. That's been significant, not just because he's moving up in the polls and Trump won the state by I think eight or nine, almost as many as he won Texas. So it was a significant win for Trump, but what we're seeing now is in two key congressional races in the last two weeks have been moved from likely Republican to lean Republican, which is trending in the Democratic direction. We're getting a number of reports from across the state, especially in the suburbs, voter registration is significantly higher among Democrats and absentee requests from Democrats. So we're seeing things, I think, trend in that direction. And then President Trump went after Goodyear Tire, which is headquartered in Akron, not far from Canton, and that's 3,300 jobs with about six or seven jobs tied to every one job there. Tens of thousands of people getting a pension there or affected economically, tied somehow to Goodyear, and he wants to lead a boycott of Goodyear for some policy that they had in one of their plants. So taking on that iconic company in Northeast Ohio, plus the trends, plus the coronavirus, thousands and tens of thousands of Ohioans living in Florida whose moms and dads and grandparents are in Florida and watching how the coronavirus got botched down there, all of that has put Ohio in play. And I think Joe Biden is, at the end of the day, is going to end up winning Ohio.
KH: So this shift isn't just about animation of the base on the left. It's not just about the increasing registration numbers you see among Democrats. You think there's a sentimental shift. You think people are thinking differently about their politics, about this president and they're reacting to him, for example, saying boycott Goodyear?
TR: Yeah. We said when he was campaigning in '16, highlighting his bankruptcies and what he did to workers, union workers, in Atlantic City, what he did to small businesses in Atlantic City, and he was able to really to paint a new picture of himself, that he was this blue collar billionaire. But now there's three and a half years of policies and comments and tweets, and he's not for the working person, and I think they're starting to realize that. And then you have the college educated men and women in the suburbs thinking that this guy is off his rocker, which I would agree with.
KH: Well, you also have a Republican Congress, and I'm speaking about your colleagues now, but you have a Republican party that is utterly complicit, either by silence or by actually by endorsing some of the wilder policies of this administration. One of my favorite recent quotes of yours from one of those floor speeches was reacting to the Senate's failure to take up new COVID-19 relief legislation. And you said, "Are you kidding me? Where do you guys live?" There is just such a disconnect. The cord you struck more than just about anyone on the campaign trail running for the Democratic presidential nomination, was that of someone who spoke to middle America, who talked to those blue collar working families in a way that Trump reported to, but never really did.
TR: Yeah. Well, we grew up in this neck of the woods. We know the pain and the challenge and the struggles of people who got caught, for the last 30 or 40 years, in an economy that shifted dramatically from where you can graduate from high school and get a good job in the rubber mills or at Timken Steel in Canton, or a steel mill in Youngstown, or an auto plant and have a really good life and have middle class life and maybe have a boat and a vacation every year and those kinds of things, and that all went by the wayside. And really, look, globalization was going to happen. It's just a natural extension of the technological advances that we had, being able to take a plane halfway around the world, to be able to communicate with people all over the world. It was just a natural extension of what was going to happen. Automation is going to happen. The real beef that I think people our age have is, "Well, what the hell are you going to do about it? It's great. Okay, you want to do NAFTA? Okay, you want to do global trade. Fine. We get it. We took economics classes. We understand comparative advantage, but what are you going to do?" You're giving me an argument of in the aggregate, and in the aggregate, you're right. It creates wealth, but it also created a concentration of wealth because there was no counterforce. There was no policies to address those people who were on the underbelly of globalization and automation, and that's where the struggle and the pain and the lack of initiative by the federal government really started to grind on people and people would lose their pensions and they would lose their health care and they would lose their jobs. And then the communities would fall apart. And then you've got dilapidated homes, and then you got crime and then your schools go under because there's no tax base and on and on and on. It's just a downward spiral. And what I try to speak to, what you spoke to when you ran, and I think, to some extent, with what Joe Biden is capturing right now is that these are real struggles. And Trump, to his credit, at least knew strategically as a politician that people were hurting and he tapped into that and that's why he did so well, I think, in Ohio and was able to win Michigan and win Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. But he does not know in his heart, like in my mind Joe Biden does coming from Scranton, Pennsylvania. It's just something that is ingrained in who we are in our culture. And people are longing for somebody to give us an answer on how we get out of it. I think I know what the answer is too, but the average voter bought what Trump was selling and now they realize he's full of shit.
KH: I'm glad you brought up this idea of concentration of wealth because the stock market right now is breaking records nearly every week. But can you put the lie to the notion, based on your conversations back home, that the stock market equals the economy?
TR: Well, we've been arguing this for a long time. I used this stat a lot during the presidential that 40 to 50% of American families couldn't withstand a four or $500 emergency. And unfortunately, the coronavirus proved that to be true. How many people, how many families were struggling to make ends meet. People were just barely keeping their heads above water. And meanwhile, you see what's happening with the stock market. I think it was March or April, we had 40 or 50 million people file for unemployment and the stock market had its greatest months since the Great Depression. A few weeks later, JPMorgan Chase reported $34 billion in revenue. The stock market continued to set records and we still have millions and millions of people in this country filing for unemployment, not getting their unemployment checks. 40% of people in Ohio are at risk of being evicted. So the challenges for average people are still great, and yet the stock market is going up. Here's a great example too, Ken, is that the airline industry, they got this huge tax cut from President Trump. The corporate tax rate dropped from 35 to 21% and what did the airline industry do? They took all the money that they saved from the corporate tax rate, they went back and bought their own stocks and jacked up the price of their stocks, and then the CEO sell a lot of stocks and the VP sell their stocks, they make a lot of money, and then coronavirus hits, they turn around, they come to the Congress and say, "Hey, we need bailed out." And then the average person is so pissed that this keeps happening and they can't even get a piece of the action. And so this is happening again and again and again. And that, quite frankly, that led to Donald Trump because he gave them something to hang their hat on and they voted for him. They were let down, but he tapped into that frustration.
KH: He did very, very successfully. We had Anthony Scaramucci on not long ago and, don't kill me, but I'm going to make a comparison here between Tim Ryan and Anthony Scaramucci in the way you talk about the dignity of work and working families. You brought up wages and for a while, I think COVID-19 has eclipsed this conversation, but there was a real debate about the $15 an hour minimum wage. I think what's often lost in conversations about that is that that's really a floor. That's a social justice issue. When you are out in your community, $15 an hour is, it's like an insult. These are families, and Scaramucci made this point, that a generation ago battled their way into the upper middle class on a high school education with some community college and were making 35, 40 bucks an hour with that safe union job. And now you're talking about building these folks a social safety net. I think part of what Trump's appeal to these communities was, was that the promise of restoring some pride, an empty promise, but the point I want you to react to is that with a certain framing, economic messages become cultural messages because they're about pride.
TR: Yeah, no question. Dignity of work, I think you hit the nail on the head. And to me, that's really important that we don't come off as Democrats as like, "Okay, 15 bucks. What's your economic plan? $15 minimum wage." Well, that's not an economic plan. That's a social justice plan. That's a lift people out of poverty plan. And great, it's dignity of work and it's important, but it's $30,000 a year. So even if you have two people working full time, minimum wage, you're making $60,000 a year, which still isn't where most families want to be if they're putting in 40, 50 hours a week. So how do we develop and construct an economic strategy where we actually get people up-skilled to work the jobs of the future? How do we have investments, both public and private, to capitalize on the new industries of the future, like electric vehicles and batteries and charging stations and all of these things that can pay people 25 bucks an hour or 30 bucks an hour? Now one person's making $60,000 a year and maybe somebody else is, a spouse is making another 30. Now you're at 90 or 100, which is, you can have a decent life in most parts of the country making that much. So the idea of 15 bucks an hour always rubbed me the wrong way because that became a default position. I'd hear senators on the Sunday shows, “what's the democratic economic plan?” They'd say, "We'll raise the minimum wage to 15 bucks an hour." Biden's plan is a lot different than that. When you hear him talk about it and hear his plan presented, it's about public-private partnerships, it's about industries of the future, it's about research and development, it's about upskilling people to take those jobs and dominate the future and then cut the workers in on the deal. How do we make these union jobs or at least higher pay? So it's a significantly different approach.
KH: You've got another campaign on your hands running to hold your seat in the Ohio 13th against a Trump-endorsed Republican who is just about anti-everything, including anti-vax. What do you make of the rise of the conspiracy mindset on the right? There's got to be some schadenfreude on the left like, "All right. They've gone over the deep end," but then you look at the depth of the support for these nuts and you got to wonder what the heck is happening.
TR: Well yeah. Someone asked me the other day, "Do you think people are really going to boycott Goodyear because Donald Trump said so?" And I said, "Well, my fear is that some will,"-
KH: Well, it dropped 6% in one day.
TR: Yeah, and 30% of the people in the country aren't wearing masks. They believe that the virus is a conspiracy. People follow the leader sometimes even if it's insane. And so I don't understand. I don't get, to some extent, what's happening with people who just, they have their own set of facts. And the only thing I can say is education, civic education, really developing a skill to look at a problem from all the different sides. And I've gotten in a bunch of fights with Democrats on different things, because I'm thinking for myself. Maybe I'm right, maybe I'm wrong, but I just don't ... Just because some Democrat tells me what the plan is doesn't mean I'm necessarily going to agree with it, like we were just talking about with the 15 bucks an hour. So for people just to ingest what Fox News is saying or Rush Limbaugh is saying, and then just anybody else who doesn't believe this is out of their mind without even ... If you want to talk about a value, it's humility, which is one of the reasons I love Joe Biden, but it's like, does anyone ever say to themselves, "What if I'm wrong? Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe there's an angle to this I haven't thought about that I need to consider." No, not today. You scream and yell into the microphone without any reflection at all, mindfulness or whatever, but just trying to learn and understand without just shooting off your mouth. And part of it is, I think, it's almost like “I know something you don't know and I'm a little bit smarter than you.” It's almost got that kind of tone to it.
KH: Do you worry about the fragility of American democracy given what you have seen in your time in office and the decline of civility and the rise of conspiracy theories? If one person can threaten an election, can undermine the sentence, can gut the post office and kill 170,000 Americans in the process, what does it say about the strength of democracy itself?
TR: Well, it says a couple of things. One, it says that the president of the United States carries an enormous amount of power and authority and the bully pulpit is still significant, and I think that's the first point. What should be sober for all of us participating in the presidential elections and in the nominating process, that this is we're really putting forward someone here who could get a tremendous amount of power and if they choose to not follow the norms, they could cause a lot of problems, and that's what we're seeing. We're there now. We're very, very close to a tipping point, I think, when you're looking at people getting captured on the street at a rally and arrested by people we don't know who they are. You look at how closely the president is associated with the Russians. You look at the Senate report that was a Republican controlled Senate intelligence committee report that the president's chief campaign manager was literally passing campaign documents to Russian intelligence figures who were more than likely getting them to WikiLeaks and helping influence the 2016 election, which 98 different intelligence organizations have said is the truth. That's pretty fragile stuff, and I think that the coronavirus and all that stuff is just buffoonery, incompetence, but these other things are very strategic and shows that the president is compromised. I will worry a lot more if we don't win this election. I think it's still, to some extent, controlled, but a second term, I think, could get really, really scary. It's Handmaid's Tale stuff.
KH: Yeah. We got to end on a happier note than that Tim so I want to ask about-
KH: Mindfulness and how you manage that in an institution like the one you're in. First of all, explain it to the layperson. What is it? What does it do for you?
TR: Well, the practice, the mindfulness practice is really a mind training of keeping your mind in the present moment. Your mind will naturally go to the future in anticipation of something or fear of something or the past with regret, and your mind can really live there and this practice is about really being grounded in the present moment. Many of our special forces do these kinds of practices, athletes, Kobe Bryant, Michael Jordan, LeBron James, Tom Brady, any of these people, performing at a peak level, like Olympic style. You are living in the present moment if you're going to be a gold medal winner.
It's trainable, so you're really just training your mind to be in the present moment. And when you live in the present moment, you get rid of a lot of stress and a lot of anxiety, because most of the stress and anxiety comes from stuff that never really happens. So for me, it's just like, "Okay, look, shit's bad. What can I do about it?" And one of the things I shouldn't be doing is just sitting around worrying about it because that'll cripple your ability to actually make good, clear decisions. So these little practices, like following your breath in and out, in and out with your mind, your mind will go off, you bring it back to your breath and it's almost like building a muscle up through training and you build that ability to focus and control your attention span and continue to put it in the present moment. And that reduces stress, it improves your performance, it increases creativity, makes you a nicer person to be married to, or be a father because you just- a half a beat more patience. I call it the ultimate prevention because all the stupid stuff you say, you can maybe catch yourself before you say one or two of those things that ... You can say something stupid and you spend weeks cleaning that shit up.
TR: If I just didn't say that. And if you can get a half a beat where you can catch that stuff, especially in politics, you can ... And you listen better. I think part of the reflection and listening and recognizing that a lot of people can offer some positive things, even conservatives and Republicans. They're not always wrong and let's find where we can work together.
KH: It's not just about performance and handling the moment of stress you're in. What really drew me to your focus on this was the connection I made to many of my military buddies who use similar practices to deal with trauma. And I believe you've drawn inspiration from that and studying the military and some of the focus on mindfulness there. Of course spec ops teams use it to increase performance, but a lot of vets I know use it to deal with trauma.
TR: Yeah. There's a variety of approaches in groups we've worked with. Project Welcome Home Troops, where they do a bunch of deep breathing exercises because that stress over time goes from just mental anxiety and there's a mind, body connection that in the West, we don't always appreciate, but that stress can get in your limbic system. It can get into your body. Next thing you know, you have ulcers. Over time, you have heart disease, high blood pressure. That stress causes your body to inflame, and most sicknesses today come from inflammation. And so it throws your body out of whack. So when the vets come back with severe trauma, the default position has been how many different medications can we put these fellows on or women on? And these practices help process that stress and with the deep breathing, yoga, tai chi, other exercises like that actually release the stress, get your body and your mind out of fight or flight mode and then your body naturally wants to heal itself. And these guys are getting their lives back and it's the most inspirational thing I've ever done in my life, is be a part of watching these vets in these classes. I did a mindfulness based stress reduction class, I don't know, seven or eight years ago at the Washington, D.C. VA. Room full of 12 Vietnam vets, grizzled guys, just what you would think about when you think about a Vietnam vet who rides a motorcycle and works in a plant, and they were meditating, man, and they were healing their relationships. And they said, "I got a relationship with my kids again and I realize how I treated my first wife," and on and on. It was just beautiful to see they got their life back. So I appreciate you asking. It's really one of my passions.
KH: Well, thank you Tim for your advocacy for vets. We end every episode of Burn the Boats with the same question. What is the bravest, biggest decision you've ever been a part of?
TR: Huh. Well, professionally, a few. The run for Speaker and the run for President, those weren't easy, but getting married. I was married once years and years ago, I got divorced and jumping into another marriage, not because of my wife, but because of my distrust of myself to be able to have a fully functioning adult relationship that was ... But I jumped in and it's been the best thing I ever did.
KH: Awesome. Well Tim, been great having you.
TR: Ken, always great to be with you, man. Thanks for doing this. Appreciate the opportunity.
KH: Thanks again to Tim Ryan for joining me. His book on mindfulness is called Healing America: How a Simple Practice Can Help Us Recapture the American Spirit. Find him on Twitter at @RepTimRyan.
Next week on Burn the Boats, I’m talking to MJ Hegar - Air Force veteran, author of the memoir Shoot Like a Girl, and now Democratic candidate for Senate in Texas. We’ll talk about her campaign, what drove her to run in the first place, and the prejudiced responses she sometimes gets to the Purple Heart on her license plate.
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Burn the Boats is a production of Evergreen Podcasts. Our producer is Isabel Robertson. Audio engineer is Sean Rule-Hoffman. Special thanks to Evergreen executive producers Joan Andrews, Michael DeAloia, and David Moss.
I’m Ken Harbaugh and this is Burn the Boats, a podcast about big decisions.