You wouldn’t know it by watching him work the crowd waiting for a breakfast table in Newport, but Sheldon Whitehouse, Rhode Island’s junior senator who is facing re-election this year, says he’s uncomfortable in the public spotlight.
“In the world of people in politics, way shyer than average,” is how he described himself over breakfast at the Corner Cafe on Broadway recently. “It’s been a constant tension for me as long as I’ve been doing this.”
It was near-debilitating in the early days of his political career, he told me as he waited for his eggs Benedict, Hollandaise sauce on the side. “I found it really hard to go up to people I don’t know and introduce myself.” Telling a story about his first campaign appearance the first time he ran for public office, he said, “After a while I gave up and went back to the car.”
Of course, he eventually got out of the car, and even manged to press some flesh, he said. And then he went on to win the state attorney general’s office. That was in 1998. Now that he’s seeking his third term as a United States Senator, he can hardly seem to imagine life outside of electoral politics.
“Not at all,” he said when asked if he considered not running for re-election. “Not for a second. I’d feel like I walked off the field in the middle of the game. It wouldn’t feel right.”
Addressing climate change and fixing the tax code – which he described as “rotten” – are among his priorities. I asked him which he thought posed a more immediate danger to America: climate change or income inequality.
“It’s hard to predict,” he said. “Both lead to the same place, which is dissatisfaction with the political system that allowed this to happen without a response. There are going to be a lot of people who suffer in both cases. People are going to look around and say our system failed us. To me, that’s the danger.”
He punctuated that thought be adding, as if to remind himself as much as anyone, “I continue to be optimistic about the American system.” I asked what gives him that confidence.
“Well,” he said, taking a moment to think about it, “I think people are very decent and patriotic and want their country back. I think the reaction to Trump has been a measure. For a lot of people the indecency of it all has really raised them up.”
Unsurprisingly, he thinks that will benefit Democrats in 2018. But Whitehouse seems to understand the establishment has some work to do with younger voters, and said Democrats bear their share of the blame for the state of the nation.
“There’s not a blue wave, there’s lots of voters who have to make this choice,” he said. “Ultimately, in this election, it will end up being blue. But I don’t think it’s people saying ‘I want to rush right out there and be a Democrat. These are people who are saying ‘I want to rush right out there and get my country back. And I’ll choose whoever I think will be best at getting us back there.’ We can’t just say we’re not Trump and all these people who are angry are naturally just going to run to us.”
That’s not to say Whitehouse is embracing Democratic Socialism, either. He’s not, he told me.
“When I think of socialism I think of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republic, Cuban socialism,” he said. “I think when you start playing around with this language the Republicans are going to start screaming that they’re all trying to be communists, I just don’t think it’s productive. Let’s say what we are going to do. If we get those things done, then the names aren’t as important. I worry that we get into these branding fights instead of actually delivering results for people then we’re spinning our wheels and not delivering.”
Labels aside, Whitehouse is no longer one of the most progressive members of the Senate. It’s hard to tell if that’s because he changed, or politics did.
He was a co-signer of the public option bill to Obamacare, at the time among the most liberal proposals considered by Congress. But today he is, at best, a soft supporter of Medicare for All, saying he wouldn’t vote for Bernie Sanders’ M4A bill as written.
“I’d want to do a lot of work first,” he said, noting veterans, and some others, could lose superior coverage as a result. “I want to get to universal coverage, but politically … we’ve got to get there and it’s going to take some work to get there.”
When it comes to climate change, though, he insists he’s still among the vanguard of elected officials in Washington DC.
“If people who are constituents don’t know how I feel about climate change and carbon pollution and the fossil fuel industry I don’t know where they have been because I’m probably the most vocal person in the Senate on all of those issues and pushing really, really hard with every tool I can find at my disposal to try to turn the corner away from the fossil fuel primacy,” he said.
He thinks any new fossil fuel infrastructure is a bad idea, saying, “Actually I think there is a very realistic prospect of a carbon bubble bursting. It is a high risk and low reward proposition and it contributes to a possible economic hazard that could have very broad implications throughout our economy.”
But he maintained his neutrality on the Burrillville power plant in particular.
“That’s a local issue, and it’s an issue in a quasi-judicial hearing,” as he’s said often. “It’s not the place for political interference. I don’t want to be involved in putting political pressure on a rule of law tribunal any more than I want to be involved in walking up and down in front of the courthouse in eastern Virginia yelling at the jurors to convict Manafort.”
Defending his position, he said, “You can’t be for rule of law sometimes.”