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Politically Speaking is WVXU Senior Political Analyst Howard Wilkinson's column that examines the world of politics and how it shapes the world around us.

Commentary: Tim Ryan seems to be going out of his way to make Democratic voters mad at him

Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Ohio, who is running for an open U.S. Senate seat in Ohio, speaks to supporters after the polls closed on primary election day Tuesday, May 3, 2022, in Columbus.
Jay LaPrete
Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Ohio, who is running for an open U.S. Senate seat in Ohio, speaks to supporters after the polls closed on primary election day Tuesday, May 3, 2022, in Columbus.

Look, I know Congressman Tim Ryan, the Democratic candidate for Ohio's open U.S. Senate seat, is getting tired of J.D. Vance and Republicans going on and on about Ryan's "100%" record of voting with Joe Biden.

Who wouldn't?

Especially when you are a candidate like Ryan, who is walking a fine line between trying to please his Democratic base and pull in independent and Republican voters you believe you need to win in sort-of-red-but-really-purple Ohio.

But does that mean you have to thumb your nose at not only Biden, but the majority of Ohio's Democratic voters?

And that is exactly what Ryan has done by coming out of the box moments after the president unveiled his plan to forgive part of the debt millions of Americans are paying on college loans.

“As someone who’s paying off my own family’s student loans, I know the costs of higher education are too high,” Ryan said in a written statement. “And while there’s no doubt that a college education should be about opening opportunities, waiving debt for those already on a trajectory to financial security sends the wrong message to the millions of Ohioans without a degree working just as hard to make ends meet.”

That statement left Ryan on an island all by himself; most leaders in Ohio Democratic politics were knocking each other over in their zeal to be the first to praise Biden's plan. And it caused a firestorm of anger on social media from rank-and-file Democrats, many of whom accused him of betraying Democratic principles in order to win an election.

It was an especially unusual position for Ryan to take because the fact-checkers didn't have to break a sweat finding examples of the Mahoning Valley Democrat saying he favored forgiving college loan debt — first in 2018, when he was running a brief and unmemorable campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination and even last year, in a talk with some Ohio reporters.

Republicans could only sit back and laugh at the word salad Ryan tossed Sunday on CNN's "State of the Union" show when he was confronted by host Dana Bash about his past support for the very thing he came out against last week.

In a rather convoluted answer, Ryan explained that he would support legislation allowing people trying to pay off college loan debt to be able to "re-negotiate their loans and get the interests rates down."

And he offered some philosophical musings about the value of a traditional four-year college education.

"One of the stupidest things we have ever done is tell everybody they have to go to college," Ryan said, pointing that there are two-year trade schools, apprenticeship programs and other ways to learn to make a good living.

Well, of course, there are. Not sure exactly who it is telling everybody that they have to go to a four-year traditional college and rack up a ton of debt.

For a candidate in a high-profile race as this Senate contest, if you start out as a underdog candidate and seem to be rising in the polls, I’m not sure this is the hill you choose to be willing to die on.

David Niven, associate professor of political science at the University of Cincinnati, said Ryan's position on student loans "may be an example of political physics: if you push hard enough on a political persona, it ends up folding in on itself."

"Tim Ryan is for the worker, not the elites," Niven said. "That's all well and good. But when you oppose loan forgiveness because of an image in your head of an art history major who ran up a big bill at Bennington, you are also opposing loan forgiveness for the Youngstown State student; for the children of steelworkers and autoworkers and farmers.

"Tim Ryan wants to be distinct; he's not just another Democrat," Niven said. "Not just a President Biden yes-man. But he needs to pick his moments. Pick the stuff that's not popular. Pick the stuff that doesn't directly benefit exactly the people he's been working for and talking about his entire career."

As odd a choice as student loan forgiveness is for Ryan to pounce on, there's a chance it will work for him and his goal of appealing to independents and Republicans who can't take Vance and his Trumpism.

It is, after all, hard to imagine all of those rank-and-file Democratic voters who are angry over Ryan's stance flocking to Vance. Most of them would likely become physically ill at the very thought of voting for a Trump sycophant.

Obviously, Tim Ryan wants the loyal voters of the Democratic base voting in the November election. But does he really want them to do it holding their noses?

Howard Wilkinson is in his 50th year of covering politics on the local, state and national levels.