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.

Listen on Apple Podcasts Listen on Spotify

Tim Ryan: The Culture Has to Change

| S:1 E:114
Tim Ryan: The Culture Has to Change

Former Ohio Congressman Tim Ryan talks about the quality of American life, divisions within both parties, and how American culture has made a turn for the worse over the last few decades.

Tim spent 20 years in the House of Representatives, rising to a prominent leadership position. He ran for president in 2020, and recently lost a tough Senate race during the 2022 Midterms.

Upgrade your closet with Rhone and use BOATS to save 20% at https://www.rhone.com/BOATS

Tim Ryan:

The point I tried to make during the campaign is like you got to make tough decisions in these jobs, especially in the Senate, you're one of a hundred.

And so, you've got to be able to tell your own party no. You have to be able to tell big business no. You have to at some point tell your friends no, because you don't think it's the right thing for the country.

Ken Harbaugh:

I'm Ken Harbaugh, and this is Burn the Boats, a podcast about big decisions.

My guest today is Tim Ryan, who spent 20 years in the House of Representatives rising to a prominent leadership position. He lost a tough Senate race during the midterms, and I've brought him on to talk about his future and the future of the Democratic Party.

Tim, welcome to Burn the Boats.

Tim Ryan:

Great to be with you, Ken, always.

Ken Harbaugh:

One of the things that always struck me about you on the campaign trail, and I should probably mention that we've gotten to know each other a bit over the years, but you always struck me as a politician who didn't live and die for politics. And I'm sure of it now because you seem genuinely happy.

But there's a question here, because I feel like one of the things that is so wrong with national politics today is that the people who want power most, who can't imagine themselves without it (the Josh Hawleys and Ted Cruzs of the world), they're the ones who deserve it least. Do you see that in Washington? Do you know what I'm talking about?

Tim Ryan:

Yeah, I have. And it's got progressively worse. And this is just to say, “Look, we all have egos, we all like to get our egos stroked, we all …” and to some level, it's nice. It's nice to be appreciated, it's nice to be thought of.

But when that becomes the driver, and like not to get into a deep like psychological conversation here — but when you have some kind of hole in your heart, some kind of personality issue, some kind of suffering or trauma that you went through in your life, and you're trying to fill that with the adulation that's supposed to come from politics or being on TV or the crowd's cheering — that is not the person you want in power.

You want the person in power who has the internal strength to be the kind of leader that can make tough decisions, do the right thing.

Great example of this, I think, is the contrast between John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson. John Kennedy said no to war over and over and over again, and people were trying to push him, the military leaders were trying to push him, whether it was Cuba, Vietnam, West Berlin. And he said no on multiple, multiple occasions because he had the internal strength, the nerve to be a leader.

Fast forward months, years to Lyndon Johnson, who by all accounts was a great politician, but wanted the military people to like him. And that led to Vietnam.

And I think we're moving into a position now where it's the Trumpism, it's the need for that kind of people to say, “Hey, you're strong, you're tough even if you're in bed now with white supremacists, you're okay with that.” And that's not where we need to be as country.

Ken Harbaugh:

Well, I think you're probably better equipped than any politician I've had on this show to talk about that psychic damage that seems endemic in Congress today. Because you've written and talked a lot about centering yourself and meditation in your practices and the things that you do to find peace.

I'm wondering how you apply that in dealing with or in having dealt with your colleagues in Congress who seem to have no real sense of themselves?

And I don't want to revisit the midterm, but you were up against a guy who emasculated himself again and again. I think that the key moment was on stage in front of thousands live and millions over TV when the former president … well, you tell the story, it's cringey.

Tim Ryan:

Yeah, yeah, yeah. Trump said from Youngstown, Ohio on stage “J.D. is kissing my for my support.” And then J.D., minutes later gets up on stage and starts shaking hands with the president, which is the ultimate ass-kissing and just pathetic.

Like I mean, the kids I went to high school with, the guys I went to high school with would never, ever, ever allow somebody to treat them that way and then get up on stage and shake their hand. And I think in the last cycle, the example of how bad it is within the Republican Party to have to kiss Trump's ring, ass, whatever.

And the point I tried to make during the campaign is you got to make tough decisions in these jobs, especially in the Senate, you're one of a hundred.

And so, you've got to be able to tell your own party no, you have to be able to tell big business no, you have to at some point, tell your friends no, because you don't think it's the right thing for the country.

And so, now, we have one major political party who really can't say no to the extremists, the insurrectionists, and all of that. And on the democratic side, quite frankly, you have a lot of people who can't say no to the extremists in our party that aren't anywhere close to the extremists of insurrectionists and white supremacy.

They're extreme on policy issues, which is a whole different ballgame. You know, that's a whole different kettle of fish. But we do have leaders in our party that can't say no to those people who are super extreme.

That is a recipe for disaster for the United States because you really need the center to hold politically, psychologically, for us to continue to be a strong country, you can't have this level of division.

And so, the key's going to be to have those leaders that can do it. And clearly, guys like J.D. Vance, Josh Hawley, Ted Cruz, even Mitch McConnell, certainly Kevin McCarthy (this guy couldn't say no if his life dependent on it). And so, that's just kinda where we're at right now politically in the country though.

Ken Harbaugh:

I just want to make sure we're not both siding this; there are extremists by some antiquated definition on both sides, but the extremists on the right are actually undermining democracy.

Tim Ryan:

A hundred percent.

Ken Harbaugh:

And you can have a policy debate and lose, and democracy allows you to rehash that policy debate. But if you don't believe in democracy, the policy debates end.

Tim Ryan:

A hundred percent. And I try to be very, very clear on that too, that there's no comparison to somebody who wants to have socialized medicine versus someone who wants to undermine the democracy or supports an insurrection, or raises money for the people who went to prison because of the insurrection.

A whole different ballgame, and we need to be clear about that. But I think in the culture today among leaders today, whether you're saying no to socialism or you're saying no to the extremists, like the character trait isn't necessarily there like we need it to be.

Ken Harbaugh:

To what do you attribute that? I mean, I guess we saw glimpses of that. In the past you brought up Kennedy versus Johnson, but it does seem pervasive these days. We have a class of political leaders, especially on the right, who seem like they will do anything to stay in power.

And today, that means staying in Trump's good graces. And it leads to incidents like we saw on that stage in Youngstown with J.D. Vance. But that was just a glimpse of this larger symptom across the Republican Party. Where has the character gone?

Tim Ryan:

It kind of devolved from Trump. Quite frankly, I think if there's a moment you could put your finger on like the, the complete collapse was in 2016 after the election. And Trump really, if you think about it, had the opportunity to come in and he had a lot of Democrats that voted for him.

He won blue states. Like there's been nobody in our lifetime, I don't think that had the opportunity to actually unite the country. Like come in after the elect to say, “Oh, oh, oh, that was bullshit, these are tough races, I won a lot of Democrats, let's rebuild the country. I'm a business guy, whatever.”

He could have done that. He could've done that. We could've done infrastructure, this, that, or the other thing.

He came in, and you remember the first week, all the executive orders. He started blowing the place up. Ship all countries and Muslim bans, like he went right down that road in Steve Bannon style and just completely threw jet fuel on all the divisions. And that was the beginning of the end, I think, and very, very difficult.

I think it's important, Kennedy, to remember politics is downstream of culture. We think that oh, we're going to register people to vote and all of it. We got to change the culture in the country. And it's around parenting, it's around how we respect and think about our teachers, nurses, public servants, cops. Like respect, like these deeper principles that are really like being nice to each other.

That’s kind of like the general glue civility, that's like the general glue that holds the society together. It's not the fucking constitution, what is law? It's just something we all agree on. What's money? Does money have value? Money only has value because we all agree to the system that allows money like it used to be backed by gold, and now, it's not. But we still believe in the system.

So, it's what you believe in. And if that system, whether it's economic or political, is not undergirded by civility, respect, understanding that we're trying to build something bigger than ourselves or we can't do this on our own, so we have to, at some level, like suppress our own ego for the good of the tribe.

And the tribe can't be the tribe, the tribe's got to be America. And I think more and more, it's like with climate and the other issues, the tribe's got to be the globe. And if we don't start thinking that way, we're going to continue to go down a road where it's going to be very, very difficult to return.

So, my focus like post-Congress is like culture, culture. And I think what you're doing is you got your finger on it. You're identifying the cancer in the culture, which is the first step to healing the culture.

And so, the work you guys are doing at Burn the Boats and in your own life, like that's an important first step to say there's the cancer that's eating the culture. We got to see it first before we can radiate it or cut it out or whatever the next step may be.

Tim Ryan:

I tend to agree that politics follows culture, but we're in a weird time now where it doesn't always seem to work that way.

I mean, Trump and his presidency made people hate each other. In a lot of ways, he drove cultural moors as a politician, and politics entered daily conversation in ways that it never did pre-Trump.

I can't remember who we had on, but somebody who was talking about cell phone data, and this was in aggregate. Researchers were looking at the amount of time people spent together over Thanksgiving pre-Trump versus post-Trump.

And it fell off. Like Thanksgiving meals are shorter now because of politics.

Ken Harbaugh:

Thank God. Yeah, I mean, I would just say kind of in response, is that I think Trump was a product of the culture. I think presidents are products of the culture.

John Kennedy was a product of the World War II generation. The courage, the grit, the determination, the idea that America could do anything including go to the moon or reshape the world in so many ways.

And so, he was a product of the culture. I think Trump was a product of a culture that became more selfish. I mean, you and I are old enough to remember Gordon Gekko and Wall Street the movie, Greed Is Good.

Jack Welsh was a badass as he was fucking shipping jobs overseas and like didn't give a shit about the workers. It became all about the shareholders. Great, great new book out, The Man Who Broke Capitalism about Jack Welsh. I recommend it to everybody. It's an amazing account of what happened.

But that became the culture. Government is bad, and there's probably no doubt we needed reform and everything else. But Reagan tapped into that idea government was bad. You had the economic deregulation. Gordon Gekko, Greed Is Good, Jack Welsh, the whole nine yards.

That unleashed and started to shape the culture in a way of disrespect for workers, we hate unions now because they're the problem. We can manufacture shit in other countries, we don't have to do it here in the United States. We'll be financed, we'll be serviced. You remember all that.

And now, here we are. We've completely de-industrialized and we've forgotten communities all over the country. So, that ended up the end of that, in my estimation, was workers really pissed off. They tried to grind it out for 30 years, got very little in raises, everything became more expensive. The dream of sending your kids to college became more and more difficult, and then a nightmare with the college debt.

It just all compounded and it led to a guy like Trump who was a product of the culture coming out of the eighties, all flash and bull shit. The guy has as much money as he had when his dad gave him $400 million or whatever that was. But he was in Home Alone, he did The Apprentice. So, then he became the President of the United States. And so, to me, he's the tail end of that culture.

The hope now, is that we can somehow reshape the culture, post-Trump. And I think that's the work that you and I have to do.

Ken Harbaugh:

I wanted to ask you about that book. I just ordered it because I saw your plug of it on Twitter. And I mean the blur really, really caught me because it's about this really vicious form of capitalism that reimagined, and Jack Welch is at the center of it.

The relationship, not just between capital and labor, but the idea of community itself. And if I had to summarize it, I mean, this is not just the book, this is my understanding of those decades, is that we traded cheap flat screen TVs for Main Street U.S.A.

I mean, you said everything got more expensive. Well, the important stuff got more expensive. Our houses got more expensive, education got more expensive. We were flooded with cheap junk. And you drive through so many small, I would venture to say most small towns in Ohio today, and there's a Walmart on the outskirts where everybody shops and downtown is dead.

Can you talk about that trade off?

Tim Ryan:

Yeah, a hundred percent. It’s the cheap stuff coming in from China and I mean, look, it's cool that everybody has a phone. Everybody has a cheap flat screen TV to watch the NCAA tournament or movies or whatever.

Like yeah. But the end result is people working harder and longer and grinding it out. I mean, look at deaths of despair which are overdoses, addictions, suicides, like dying younger than you should. Like all of these deaths of despair, the issues around mental health, the issues around teen mental health.

Like what are we doing to ourselves? Like you just got to take half a step back and say, “Is this really the system that we want where nobody's fucking happy?” I mean, come on, this can't be what we want for each other, for ourselves, for our kids where everybody's miserable and you got a small group of people who are doing really, really well.

And so, that's why I kept always going back to the economics of the situation because the best social program is a job, but it gives you dignity, it gives you purpose. And I think there's an opportunity to try to pivot out of this with the green economy, with the new economy, is that workers, moms and dads can actually participate in something bigger than themselves.

Whether it's building electric vehicles, building batteries, charging stations, whatever the next best technologies are coming out of the clean energy movement, like workers building that stuff. So, you're not going to work just to go to work, like I think a lot of people feel now, you have a purpose.

Your purpose is you're building a life for your kids. You're healing the world, you're healing the climate, and you get to go home every day and tell your kids daddy makes batteries so that we can fix this problem that we have, a higher purpose.

And I mean, you think about like when the country was probably a lot more happy, and going back to that kind of golden age like we won a war for freedom. It was real. It wasn't made up, it wasn't some BS war. It was like Hitler was marching across Europe.

The boys had to go do something and the women went to the factories, and we were all in on it. We survived the depression, did the war, and we came back, and we said we're going to rebuild America. Now, we're going to go to the moon. Like there was this higher purpose that the country has.

And I think if there's one main criticism I have of the president at this point, it's like get us aligned to this higher purpose. That's what the country is missing and that shifts the culture, and the culture then shifts the policies.

Not to go on too long of a rant here, but when you look at the policies that came out of the greatest generation, because we were united, because we cared about each other. Not that we always liked each other, there were still racism issues and all of that. We had problems.

But when you look at the policies that came out of that, of a united culture: social security, Medicare, Medicaid, eventually civil rights, urban renewal, community development, block grants, like all the way to Nixon, where Nixon was signing in community development block grants. Nixon signed in the environmental Protection Agency.

Everything that came outta that culture whether you were a Democrat or Republican, was about healing, bringing us together, common issues, common challenges: retirement for seniors, healthcare for seniors, healthcare for the poor, legal aid for God's sake, came out of the great society, like everyone should have legal rights. We're America, we're democracy, we're freedom. We don't want to be like Germany or these other fascist countries.

So, when you get the culture thing right, the policies that flow from that culture are unifying. They're for everybody. And right now, and technology has really made this worse, is we're all divided. We go to our little lane, get on our podcasts, our websites, get texts from the people we want to get texts from and live in that world. And that's a divided world that we're in.

Ken Harbaugh:

When you are making the case for this kind of reimagining of the American economy and a green energy revolution, and you're framing it in terms of human dignity and the happiness of workers and a sense of national purpose, do your colleagues or your former colleagues in Congress' eyes glaze over?

Do they understand that that's the end goal? The end goal isn't lower marginal tax rates or an economic framework, it's human flourishing.

Tim Ryan:

Yeah, I don't think so. I really feel like most leaders today are so kind of in the foxhole, in the, “I need to send an email out to get a $20 contribution, and I'm going to say whatever I have to say that's going to incite someone to jack their amygdala up to get them in the fight or flight mode so that they can send me 20 bucks.”

Versus like where's the aspiration? And I think most people want to be a part of something bigger, but it's hard. And I will tell you, it's hard when you're running a campaign in the middle of a campaign where you're trying to get as much money in because Mitch McConnell just shipped 40 or $50 million to Ohio.

Like, “I need 20 bucks from everybody, come on, they're really coming after me.” And so, I don't know, it's just like we got to slow things down a little bit. I think things are going way too fast and we're all caught up in it. And I think those politicians that are leaders today …

And I mean, you look at what's going on in a Republican Party right now, like for the presidential —these guys, oh my God, like they will do or say whatever … they're appealing to IDD, the IDD in us. They're going to like ring the bell and hope the dog starts salivating. I mean, that's pretty much how they're rolling.

Ken Harbaugh:

Hi Burn the Boats fans, I want to take a quick break to talk about our sponsor for today's show, Rhone.

Men's closets are long overdue for a radical reinvention, and Rhone has stepped up to the challenge. Rhone’s commuter collection represents the most comfortable, breathable, and flexible clothes I've ever found. Rhone makes it so easy to get ready for any occasion.

The commuter collection offers the world's most comfortable pants, dress shirts, quarter zips, and polos. Rhone's comfortable four-way stretch fabric provides breathability and flexibility that leaves you free to enjoy whatever life throws your way, from your commute to work, to weekends at the kids' ballgames.

Looking good is easy with Rhone’s wrinkle release technology, which makes wrinkles magically disappear, seriously, as you wear the products. It's really that easy. I don't have time between work and family and everything in between to worry about dry cleaning or ironing. With Rhone, I don't have to, I just wear and go.

And I feel great doing it. Even after a long day, Rhone feels clean and new, and just as comfortable as the moment I put it on. You got to try it out. Head to rhone.com/boats and use promo code BOATS to save 20% off your entire order.

That's 20% off your entire order when you head to rhone.com/boats and use code BOATS. Trust me, Rhone makes choosing what to wear, not just easy, but classy and comfortable. That's rhone.com/boats.

Ken Harbaugh:

Let's talk about Ohio and what is happening in this state we love. Obviously, a flood of RNC money came into the state and you lost, and you have talked a lot about the Democratic brand in this state and just how hard it is to overcome the damage that that brand has suffered.

You've got this great story about our mutual friend, Jennifer Brunner, and how as soon as she had to run with the Democrat label next to her name, everything changed.

Tim Ryan:

Yeah, she ran for Supreme Court in ‘20 and won. And we won a couple other Supreme Court race seats in Ohio, but at that point, you can run unaffiliated. You didn't have to declare a party one way or the other for judicial races in Ohio. And then their Republicans wised up, they control everything else in the state.

They wised up and passed a bill that said you have to affiliate. And so, Jen became a Democrat which she was Democratic Secretary of State in 2007 to 11. And then she got smoked like the rest of us because she had the “D” by her name.

Now, I will say this; we were able to, like my campaign, we were able to persuade the middle. We got 400,000 split ticket voters. So, they voted for Republican governor, they voted for me, and our candidate for governor lost by like 27 points.

So, for us to come that close, the reason we lost is because Democratic turnout was down in the key democratic areas; in Cuyahoga County, Franklin County, Hamilton County. We did good, we won big, but we weren’t at the level we needed.

So, I think if there's one thing that the campaign did, I think it really provided a roadmap for us to say like, “Look, we got to outcompete China because they're sitting down with Vladimir Putin like their president was a couple days ago.”

Anti-democratic, they're no free press, no free speech, ethnic cleansing, forced abortions, like go right down the line. So, we got to take them on, manufacture, jobs, new economy, all of this stuff. So, we were able to like win the middle.

We couldn't get the base out and we didn't have enough money to like really do a ground game like we wanted to, to really get people to the polls, which is why I was a little at like the DC Democrats with like 5 or 10 million in Ohio could have won us this seat because we could have like really juiced up our ground game but we didn't have money to do the ads, do the persuasion, capture the middle, and have the money to get people to the polls.

So, I will say in Ohio though, like I feel that message can work, that Democratic party obviously has to continue to do better, and I feel like they're on the right track, but they don't have the resources really to do it.

And then honestly, like I think the economic development that's happening in Ohio now, based on this new economy effort that Sherrod Brown, myself and others have been pushing for a long time, Foxconn's and the old General Motors large town plant, they've got six or seven products coming out of there.

There's battery plants, Honda's doing a battery plant, Intel's doing a multi-billion dollar chip manufacturing, natural gas in the eastern part of the state, solar panels in Toledo, auto supply chain stuff happening.

So, my hope is that as these new jobs emerge and Ohioans recognize that it was actually the Democratic policies, it was the Inflation Reduction Act, it was the American rescue package, it was the infrastructure bill that's doing all these bridges and the Brent Spence Bridge down in Cincinnati — like they'll actually say, “Yeah, I mean, I don't like how I think Democrats are always talking about these social issues and the extreme issues or whatever, but man, it seems like the Democrats have really delivered for Ohio … pensions.”

So, I think Sherrod’s going to be the test case for this, and I think he's going to win. I think people trust Sherrod, and I think he's going to have his fingerprints on every positive thing that's happened in Ohio, Sherrod Brown was in the middle of it. And I think that's going to help us hopefully, at least rebrand the party here.

Ken Harbaugh:

How confident are you that Democrats are actually going to get credit for that though?

Tim Ryan:

I'm not confident at all. Yeah, I don't know.

Ken Harbaugh:

Let's take as probably the most tragic recent case in point, East Palestine. And you have this massive environmental disaster, the train derailment, and the controlled burning of the toxic waste. And I am not sure that the blame is going to be appropriately placed on the deregulation that occurred under Trump.

It's getting laid at the feet of Democrats, at the same time, all of these democratic efforts to strengthen the kinds of safety regulations, they're not getting credit for that. That's just a microcosm of how — it's either how bad Democrats are at messaging the things they're doing, or how stovepipe the information economy now is that Fox News could control what so many voters hear about Democratic successes.

Tim Ryan:

Yeah, I think clearly, we know where the fault lies. But here's again, just being objective. Like the president didn't show up in East Palestine. It took Mayor Pete two weeks to show up there.

I love Mayor Pete, I love the president: show up, show up. Like I don't care who voted for who in that county, like in Columbiana County, I don't care. It went red. I don't care it went for Trump by 80% or whatever the number was.

Like that was an opportunity that was missed. Like show up and make the argument that you just made. Like we've been trying to push for these regulations and these guys have been stopping us, including this person and that person and that person. And that's why this keeps happening.

And then two days later, three days later, a week later, it happened again. There was work toxic chemicals on, but there was another crash I think in Southwest Ohio somewhere. But you got to go there and you got to drive that narrative home and you have to use sometimes these tragic situations to go down and like make the point because everybody's paying attention.

And if you want like those working-class voters who used to vote for Democrats based on our economic positions — they were in unions, they were Democrat … I grew up (you probably the same way) like Democrats are for the working people, Republicans are for the rich. Like that was all the low information voter knew and they went out and voted for Democrats.

So, go in and drive that point home. And there was no better place to be able to do that than the situation in East Palestine, it was a missed opportunity, I felt.

Ken Harbaugh:

Yeah, me too. And it goes back to the branding problem that you have described. I'm wondering how that squares though, with your stat of 400,000 ticket splitters in your election. You were able to overcome that for the middle. It wasn't a branding problem, it was democratic turnout.

Tim Ryan:

Well, I spent 20 years in Congress, I think a lot of people around the state knew me, and knew kind of what I was for, and then periods during the campaign, I would come out against the administration. It could have been terrace on solar panels, Chinese solar panels or a particular issue, student loans, something like that, where I was able to differentiate myself.

I did run against Speaker Pelosi back in 2016 after the Trump win. So, you had a lot of people who like didn't necessarily like Trump, they knew I ran against Leader Pelosi. They knew I had taken on the administration, they knew I opposed Obama on his trade deals. So, I had the guts to take on my own party.

And I think that was the key for those people. It wasn't that I wanted to work with Republicans, it was that I had the guts to take on my own party. Then I think for the average voter, that's kind of, you got to pass the Snell test there.

Like yeah, everybody says, “Hey, bipartisanship, yada, yada.” Of course, but do you have, “When push comes to shove …” do you have the ability to take on your own party? And quite frankly, and I'm proud of this, like I didn't do it as an asshole, you know what I mean?

Like I took Pelosi on, and I would say on TV, they ended up using it in the campaign. I'd say, “Look, I love Nancy Pelosi, but we've got issues with our party and our brand and yada, yada, yada.” And so, I think people recognize that I was willing to hold the line, take a stand, say no, and I think that got me a lot of credibility.

But we've got to get to the point where you can do both that and get your turnout that you need, and have the infrastructure in place politically to turn voters out.

Ken Harbaugh:

In Congress, as it operates today, how do you work with the other side? And I'm thinking about issues that … well, I'm trying to imagine being in Sherrod’s shoes right now, Senator Brown shoes right now on issues that matter to all Ohioans, like rail safety, but having to share the bus ride to and from DC with someone like J.D. Vance who has threatened the democracy, who has celebrated the insurrectionists, but you got to work with a guy like that. I mean, it's got to be an incredibly morally compromising job.

Tim Ryan:

Yeah, I mean, you've got to keep in mind, and this is a skillset that you need leaders to develop. It's who are you here for? You’re here for the people of Ohio and what is in their best interest and yeah, on the issues of democracy and others of course, but what's the issue at hand right now?

And the issue at hand is protecting the health and safety of people in Ohio. And so, guys like Sherrod, have to do the right thing. And he does, he worked with Portman, he will now have to work with J.D. He seems he's able to do that.

But it's the same, you see a quarterback sit in the pocket and you're like, “How do you sit there when you got these bad guys breathing down your neck and want to knock you on your rear end? Like how are you able to like do that?” And it's just a skill that you have to just develop over time.

And like you said, the backdrop here is some scary stuff with the democracy hanging in the balance. And so, you've really got to kind of juggle both. It's a tough job. And I will say too, like that whole idea of the average citizen saying, and I can say this now that I'm out because it's not self-serving — it's like these are tough jobs. These are tough jobs. These are tough, tough jobs.

They're difficult, the problems are hard. Being president is just insanely difficult, which is why back in the day, even if you disagreed with Eisenhower or Kennedy or whatever, you still respected the office because it was so difficult, and they were there to serve.

In that respect, going back to like the earlier question, having that respect of people who are out there serving doesn't mean you always got to agree, but having some level of respect for how difficult the job is, which means you got to elect people who can handle the tough job, not someone who's going to play the lowest common denominator.

Be an ass kisser, tell you what you want to hear — people who are going to go down there and be able to explain to you why we're going the way we're going, and why we're leading and getting in presidents go on TV.

And I remember one of the most, I think, important speeches in the history of the country was when President Kennedy went on and talked about the civil rights issue. Like I don't want to say he was dragged kicking and screaming, but he was waiting for the right moment to be able to give that speech.

And he wanted to give it for a long time, but the time wasn't right, and then the time became right, and what did he say? He started with a common belief. We are promoting freedom around the world (this is the World War II generation), that's what America does. How can we possibly promote freedom around the world when every one of our citizens isn't free?

So, we master persuasion. Like go to where everybody is, common beliefs, and then bring them along. That's the leadership you need in the country. Not somebody who's going to pander to the crowd that you talk a lot about and do your documentaries about.

Ken Harbaugh:

How did you become a national security Democrat? I mean, it came really naturally to me growing up in a military family, three generations of pilots.

But I think it was on David Axelrod's show, you have this quote and I love it. I'm going to put it on a bumper sticker. You said, “Freedom is not a cliché, it fucking matters.” Where does that come from?

Tim Ryan:

Well, you get a little Mahoning Valley potty mob there, of course. But just really watching, it came through the economic piece. It came through the China piece because we were watching over the course of my life, whether it was NAFTA and losing the jobs and then China, and we were watching China dump steel into the American market and displace American steel workers and displaced American companies by dumping cheap products into the country.

So, I started watching China very, very closely as a young congressman. And it became very clear to me that this country wants to displace the United States. And again, to their culture, to their beliefs, to what they think.

And so, really, recognizing that we need a strong military to be able to combat that. That it's not just the military, and it doesn't mean you can't streamline the military and cut fat out of the military, but we do need to dominate all the technologies that are being used in the military.

You know, whether it's rail guns or artificial intelligence or enough satellites or enough weapon systems. Like we have to have that stuff. Like I'm sorry if it's inconvenient to the narrative of the Democratic Party, there's no other way around it because they're bad people.

And like if you want it to be Xi and Putin, in their view and their worldviews, helping organize the world, or do you want it to be the United States with all our imperfections? Like we have to be patriotic, we have to be nationalistic, we have to have gratitude at the power of the country and the flag that is behind you.

And that means you got to have a strong military and you got to have a healthy military. I did a lot on diet nutrition because our force is not as healthy as it should be. The diabetes, the obesity issues, like this has to be a lethal force.

And so, like to me, that's a very pragmatic position to have. It's a necessary position to have. And then again, like you're talking about the culture in D.C. with leaders — you would go to the super progressives who do nothing but want to cut the military budget. Like I said, there's a lot of ways that we can squeeze out of there.

But you would say, “Have you been to a classified briefing on China?” And they would say, no. “So, go to a fucking briefing about China and you come back and tell me that we need to cut our military by 30%, and get rid of like guns and tanks.” Like these people want to displace us as a country. Like you can't do that. Like that's not responsible.

Ken Harbaugh:

I want to underline the moral dimension of that because there's obviously the geopolitical competition, the economic competition, but it really is a contest of values. This isn't like the Japanese car industry in the seventies and eighties overtaking the American and German car industries.

This is about an autocratic form of government that imposes its will on the people and doesn't give them a voice in the direction of their country, versus granted a very messy and often, traumatic democratic process that we cleave to, but one that gives people a voice. This is a moral competition as much or more than an economic one.

Tim Ryan:

A hundred percent; ethnic cleansing, forced abortions. You saw what they did in COVID, locking people into their homes. And I mean, that is what we're dealing with here. And the fact that in the middle of what Putin did in the Ukraine, that the leader of the Chinese government and the Chinese Communist Party, which is the same thing, shows up with Vladimir Putin saying what a great friend he is. I mean, it's right there in plain sight for everybody to see.

Ken Harbaugh:

I grew up in a Reagan Republican family, my dad was a phantom pilot. We were in Europe on the front lines of the Cold War. How weird is it that the party of Reagan has now become the party of appeasement, and in some cases, the party of outright collaboration. When you look at people like Marjorie Taylor Greene and Matt Gaetz and their sympathies for Vladimir Putin.

Tim Ryan:

Yeah, it's stunning to see. I mean, we’ve talked about the 400,000 split ticket voters in Ohio that came my way. Reagan Republicans who are now outcast in the party in a lot of ways. And I mean you think about like, “Oh my God, I would die to have Ronald Reagan as president right now” versus every other Republican that's out there. It's just like, “Yeah, bring Ronnie back. Let's do it.”

Because he was civil, he had a general sense of what was going on in the world. Certainly. didn't like his economic policies. And again, he led to all the problems that we had. But yeah, it's amazing to see, especially the Ukrainian stuff.

I mean, that is just so tragic to see what's happening there in such a violation of international law. So, clearly, our morals, our ethics as a country, how can you stand by and allow this to happen, and to have J.D. Vance and others within the party, like really trying to work hard to pull the plug.

And then I tweeted out the other day the picture of Putin and Jay together. It’s like how can you let this happen? Like what's the matter with you? I just don't understand it. It's just again, it's going down this road that Trump set with the nationalism.

But really, nationalism in my estimation, is very intertwined with the stakes in Ukraine. That has a lot to do with the United States.

Ken Harbaugh:

So, are you done? Are you getting back in? What is in Tim Ryan's future?

Tim Ryan:

Not in the near future. I never say never. I really enjoyed my time in politics, but I'm loving being out. I coached Brady, our eight-year-old. I was the deputy assistant to the assistant of his eight-year-old basketball team. And got to take him to practice and hang out. We get to see each other almost every day.

And my wife and I are having more fun now than we've had really in our entire marriage because I've always been kind of running, running for something in D.C. three or four days a week, traveling. And so, we're getting a chance really to kind of reconnect and enjoy each other.

And I'm really enjoying the work I'm doing and so maybe one day, but like right now, I'm going to enjoy this. And it's time. The family made all the sacrifices for 10 years. I don't think anybody — you went through it just with the campaign. Like people just don't understand what the spouse goes through, and what the kids go through when you're not home.

And you're heartbroken because you're missing things, but they're carrying the load. And so, now, it's Andrea's turn, and that's what marriages are about, good marriages anyway. Like it's 50/50 but it's not always 50/50. Sometimes it's 80/20 one way and 80/20 the other way, coming out of the military, you know this.

And right now, it's been 80/20 me and now for a while, it's going to be 80/20 them. And if that evens out at some point and there's an opportunity to help and serve and I would be needed, I would consider it down the line, but nothing in the near future.

Ken Harbaugh:

Well, you seem happy, Tim, and you have certainly earned it. Enjoy it for as long as you can.

Tim Ryan:

Yes, sir. Yes sir. Well, thanks for having me, man. Keep up the great work and I'm loving working with guys like you and others who are doing great stuff. So, keep it up.

Ken Harbaugh:

I will. Thanks, Tim. We'll have you back soon.

Tim Ryan:

Thanks. Take care.

Ken Harbaugh:

Thanks again, to Tim for joining me.

Thanks for listening to Burn the Boats. If you have any feedback, please email the team at [email protected]. We're always looking to improve the show.

For updates and more, follow us on Twitter at team_harbaugh. And if you enjoyed this episode, don't forget to rate, and review.

Burn the Boats is a production of Evergreen Podcasts. Our producer is Declan Rohrs, and Sean Rule-Hoffman is our audio engineer.

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.


View Less

Recent Episodes

View All

Tim Alberta: Evangelical Extremism

Burn the Boats | S:1 E:160
Journalist Tim Alberta discusses his book, The Kingdom, the Power, and the Glory, and his personal experiences with the evangelical movement....
Listen to Tim Alberta: Evangelical Extremism

Dr. Steven Hassan: MAGA is a Cult

Burn the Boats | S:1 E:159
Dr. Hassan explains how cults indoctrinate members, and how the radical right has copied these strategies....
Listen to Dr. Steven Hassan: MAGA is a Cult

Dr. Bandy Lee: A Duty to Warn

Burn the Boats | S:1 E:158
Psychiatrist Dr. Bandy Lee discusses Trump’s mental state, and the danger he poses to the country....
Listen to Dr. Bandy Lee: A Duty to Warn

Tristan Snell: Trump’s Legal Strategy

Burn the Boats | S:1 E:157
Tristan, who prosecuted Trump as the Assistant Attorney General of New York, talks about Trump’s legal strategy, our current judicial system, and ...
Listen to Tristan Snell: Trump’s Legal Strategy