Will voters be eager to support “the exact opposite of Trump,” as Jeff Merkley describes himself, for president in 2020? That’s the sentiment the senator from Oregon hopes he finds among Iowans as he makes some early trips out to the lead-off caucus state and seriously considers launching his own presidential candidacy next year.
Merkley traversed the Democratic activist scene two weekends ago in Iowa (his second major trip here since 2016) right as his efforts to expose the Trump Administration’s family separation policy gained steam. While Trump’s policy was first implemented back in April, the dam of public opinion didn’t really break until video of Merkley’s visit to a Texas detention facility went viral. The senator tried to access a refugee resettlement facility in Brownsville, Texas on June 3, one that was holding children in fenced-in areas in a converted Wal-Mart, but was denied access. The Facebook Live video of him being turned away by the facility’s supervisors and law enforcement got more than 2 million views.
After successfully touring a separate shelter, Merkley’s accounts of the small children being held there made national headlines and drew an angry response from the White House. It also weighed on the senator’s mind. When Starting Line asked whether he thought he’d ever see anything like that in America, Merkley was quiet for several moments and sighed.
“It’s a pretty shocking sight, which is why they don’t want the press to see it,” he said. “When the press asked me to describe it, there is one room where they first arrive and they just throw them in cages, there’s no mattress on the floor, they have a space blanket and clothing, that’s it. Then they go through the interview stage. After that, they go into this big warehouse with a fenced cage.”
But the unsettling details encouraged reporters and other Democratic leaders from around the country to flock to Texas to dig into the story.
“I’m trying to focus a lot of public attention on this because it’s absolutely traumatic for the kids,” Merkley told Starting Line two weeks back in an interview in Iowa City. “We deliberately harm the children to influence their parents? No moral code could endorse that. No religious tradition could endorse that. It’s evil. I’m trying to wake up America and drive that conversation so the administration will back down and quit treating asylum seekers as kids.”
Merkley was certainly successful. The past week’s political news was completely dominated by discussion of the President’s family separation policy, even causing Trump to do something he almost never does: backtrack. Plenty of other efforts and news reports, including the gut-wrenching audio of crying children at one facility, certainly helped drive the debate, but it was Merkley’s visit that really got the ball rolling.
It all has greatly boosted the profile of the mild-mannered, policy-wonk senator from Oregon right as he’s entertaining thoughts about a 2020 run.
“I’m exploring the possibility of launching a campaign,” Merkley told Starting Line. “My wife’s a nurse, we’ve sat down and wrestled with it. We gotta do what we can to restore America, restore the things that make families thrive.”
Merkley visited Iowa City, Cedar Rapids, Waterloo and Des Moines on his most recent trip, headlining a couple local fundraisers and meeting with key activists. Those same Democrats may determine his viability in the 2020 Iowa Caucus, and he’s made good impressions so far.
Before his role in the family separation debate gave him newfound attention, Merkley brought an intriguing profile to the 2020 chatter. He has solid credibility on the progressive wing of the party through his work on climate change and economic equality issues, as well as being the only senator to endorse Bernie Sanders in the 2016 primary.
But his appeal could be even broader than that as he describes it.
“I bring the perspective or an ordinary American,” Merkley explained. “I grew up in a blue-collar community. My mother had a vision of living a life with integrity. My father was a mechanic, a machinist who enjoyed coming home and listening to the evening news and running commentary on how we could make the world better. I still live in that same blue-collar community. We have too many leaders who come from the bubble background, the equivalent of gated communities.”
Merkley currently lives about a mile from his mother’s home, and how he’s seen his local community grow and change over the years gives him both hope and cause for concern. A mostly white, blue-collar neighborhood when he was growing up, Merkley’s home in Portland is now in one of the most diverse communities in the country. But the local schools are struggling and everything is getting more expensive.
“The public school is more crowded per classroom than when I was there 40 years ago,” he said. “We’re a wealthier country, but public schools are in worse shape. All the extra-curricular activities were free when I was in school there. Now, kids have to pay money for them, and for blue-collar kids, $100 bucks to run cross country? Not happening.”
Although his local high school is one of the largest in the state, it has no speech and debate program, chess team and other social sciences-type activities. And the opportunities for young people who graduate from there are also lacking.
“A lot of parents are saying they’re not sure they should encourage their child to go to college because they’ll end up with debt the size of a home mortgage,” Merkley said. “No way to have a job that pays that bill and have a life. The idea that education could be a millstone around their neck means that children hear that and think the system is rigged, there’s no future. It affects how they study in high school.”
Those basic economic concerns form the core of Merkley’s early pitch to Democrats, which also serves as a political rationale. In a place like Iowa where the Democratic Party saw its backing among blue-collar workers erode precipitously in 2016, Merkley argues he’d be well-suited to reconnect with them and their issues.
“It’s a very comfortable world for me to talk to them about how workers have been screwed over the last 40 years and how it’s a combination of trade policy, automation and assault on the ability of workers to organize,” he said. “Some places I’m with Trump on what he laid out as the goal. He talked about taking on trade. But the fact is he’s doing it incompetently.”
His other comfortable setting is getting into the weeds on policy. He began his career in public service working as a fellow at the Department of Defense, then on nuclear weapon policy for the Congressional Budget Office. He was the executive director of Habitat for Humanity back in Portland for several years and worked on affordable housing policies before running for office.
Since in office, he’s also become a leader on climate change issues.
“I’m immersed in the issue of climate chaos because it’s now the biggest threat to the planet,” Merkley said. “We have to address it in this generation.”
He’s noted in other interviews that he may not be the most charismatic member of the Senate, but that may simply add to his appeal in a potential presidential run. In a country tired of nonstop scandal and drama from the White House, a more measured, calm and professional leader may be what voters are looking for.
“I think it’s worth exploring whether somebody who is like the exact opposite of Trump – cares about the policy details, cares about integrity, cares about treating people with respect – can help put our nation back on track,” Merkley said.
by Pat Rynard