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Look at it this way Himes ponders past to change future

December 2, 2018

About 14 years ago, I was chatting with a veteran journalist while visiting the Newsday newsroom across the pond known as Long Island Sound.

We just met, and would never meet again, but I was struck by the candor of his post-election analysis.

“We got it so wrong,” he kept repeating, shaking his head.

I was surprised that he was so surprised. But yes, many members of the media expected Democrat John Kerry to unseat incumbent Republican President George W. Bush. And yes, he was right, reporters based in New York and California were so tone deaf that they tuned out the voices from those states in between.

Maybe you forgot about that. Most of the media had by 2014, when Donald Trump won the presidency despite being treated like a punchline by media pundits on the coasts.

The conversation stuck with me for 14 years. A similar one from five weeks ago keeps replaying in my head as well. We were interviewing U.S. Rep. Jim Himes as part of the endorsement process. After a decade in office, Himes reliably invites a peek into the Beltway crystal ball on such occasions. He’ll offer insights into finance (he was previously a Goldman Sachs vice president) or world affairs (he’s on the House Intelligence Committee).

Two years ago, Himes seemed to be keeping his cool after Trump’s election, pledging in a similar interview that he and colleagues would provide “checks and balances” for a free form commander-in-chief.

He admits now that Trump’s election left him dazed. He uses virtually the same words as the Newsday journalist. Himes moves his hands together like a vice and relives the moment.

“I was so wrong and subsequently have come to understand how narrow my field of vision is with respect to American voters.”

Did you catch that? A Washington politician used “I was wrong” in a sentence. Pay attention, he’ll do it again.

Trump’s victory wasn’t the epiphany for Himes. That didn’t come until a few months ago when he was in Ohio with U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan, whose district runs from Akron to Youngstown. He told Ryan his heart broke when the president used the phrase “American carnage” during the inaugural address.

“Jimmy, come with me to Youngstown, you will get this,” Ryan responded.

Ryan pointed to a line of “old, beautiful houses in total disrepair” along a bluff.

“Every third one is empty because no one can afford the upkeep, and every fifth one has someone who is strung out on opioids,” Ryan explained. “The guy at that house who used to make 25 dollars an hour at the plant is now making nine dollars an hour at Walgreens. In Youngstown, Ohio, my people understand American carnage.”

In addition to admitting fault, Himes mocks his persona as a former banker and Greenwich resident for good measure.

“I could spend all of my time shaking my fists, saying (Trump’s) a liar, or I could reflect on the fact that we were part of the problem. Because Fancy Pants Himes here did not understand the way a lot of people who used to vote Democratic said ‘I’ll go with the guy who’s promising to bring back the coal mines.’”

His cool facade does ripple once, as he imagines the work Democrats need to do to reclaim the White House.

“We’re doing real well in California and Connecticut. Let’s get off the goddam coasts and talk to people who don’t like us at all.”

As chair of the New Democratic Coalition, Himes has a bold strategy for the next two years: Work with President Trump.

Himes clings to other words of the past. He recalls Trump pledging to invest $1 trillion into transportation infrastructure, so he wants to rally colleagues to collaborate with the president to make it happen. He also wants to take Trump up on his vision of reducing the cost of prescription drugs.

Learning from mistakes and seeking common ground are welcome approaches. A longer view of history routinely serves as a reminder to Himes that things were once worse in Washington.

He occasionally takes visiting constituents to the Old Senate Chamber where Republican Massachusetts Sen. Charles Sumner, an abolitionist, was nearly caned to death by Democratic Rep. Preston Brooks of North Carolina. That was on May 22, 1856, a symbolic precursor to the worst fissure America has experienced.

“You don’t want the Civil War to be the standard,” Himes reasons.

John Breunig is editorial page editor. Jbreunig@scni.com; 203-964-2281; twitter.com/johnbreunig.

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