If anyone can testify to the problem of giving really rich people a chance to tilt the political playing field, it's Sen. Sherrod Brown.

A proud labor-populist, Brown seems to invite the hostility of wealthy conservatives and deep-pocketed interest groups. The amount they have spent to defeat him went somewhere over $20 million this week.

Brown can live with that. His uncompromising advocacy on behalf of workers, toughness on trade, and progressive policies on a broad range of other issues have allowed Brown to build a formidable organization across Ohio, and a large cadre of small donors.

“That organization is there," he said in an interview before he spoke at a fundraiser in this Cleveland suburb, "because they have a candidate who stands for something and fights for something." Brown has stayed ahead in his race against Republican state Treasurer Josh Mandel so far, although the polls tightened this week.

I spoke with Brown a few days after President Obama's unfortunate first debate, and the contrast between Brown's approach and the president's was striking -- even though Brown, a loyal Obama supporter, did not bring it up himself. Letting down his guard just wouldn't occur to Brown.

Indeed, his analysis of why Democrats were routed in 2010 combines a clear-eyed view of the condition of the country at the time -- "There was no evidence by the 2010 elections that things were getting better" -- with a belief that his party must always be prepared to make its case. Leading into 2010, he said, "we let them get away with too much."

That's not a bad description of how Democrats felt about Obama's first debate with Mitt Romney. It's also why their expectations of Vice President Biden in Thursday's encounter with Rep. Paul Ryan are so high. Democrats want Biden to put their side back on offense, and Brown's view of the argument Biden has to make was characteristic.

Ryan, Brown said, has "dressed up trickle-down economics and wrapped it in an Ayn Rand novel." The vice president, Brown added, should highlight the Republicans' desire to privatize both Medicare and Social Security, reflected in Ryan's own record and Republicans' attempts to do so whenever they thought they had the votes. "It's clear they want to go there," Brown said.

Democrats, including Obama, have to get over that first debate, but it does contain useful lessons that the president learned once and cannot forget again.

Obama began his political recovery after the 2011 debt-ceiling fiasco only when he acknowledged the need to confront the radicalism of the new Republican agenda. He put forward a clear alternative philosophy rooted in government's obligation to check the abuses of the market, to invest in public goods the market won't finance, and to offset growing inequalities.

Both winning the election and governing successfully require Obama to remain unflinching in his insistence that conservatism in its current form cannot provide an adequate basis for either economic renewal or social fairness. Ironically, Romney is unintentionally lending support to this view by trying to abandon his recent right-wing positions with the speed of a NASCAR driver.

And in the midst of all the hand-wringing among Democrats, Sen. Charles Schumer offered a refreshing moment of principle this week that should also guide the president. In plain language, the New York Democrat stood up to challenge a truly foolish piece of Washington conventional wisdom that a post-election budget deal should use tax reform as a way of cutting the income tax rates of the very wealthy.

"It would be a huge mistake," Schumer said in a speech laying down a policy marker, "to take the dollars we gain from closing loopholes and put them into reducing rates for the highest income brackets, rather than into reducing the deficit." At a time when revenue has to be part of any sane budget deal and when income and wealth gaps are widening, why should Congress be so attentive to the wishes of the most privileged?

There may be an answer in the furious efforts of the conservative billionaires to unseat Sherrod Brown. He asks the obvious questions: "Why this money? Who are these people? Why are they spending it in Ohio?"

As it happens, the same folks are also trying to beat Obama. It would behoove the president (and Biden, too) to join Brown in reminding voters that this election will determine whose interests will be represented after the ballots are counted -- and whose will be ignored.

(c) 2012, Washington Post Writers Group

E. J. Dionne Jr. is a syndicated columnist, professor of government at Georgetown University, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, and a contributing writer for Commonweal. His most recent book is Code Red: How Progressives and Moderates Can Unite To Save Our Country (Macmillan, 2020).

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