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JEFFERSON, Iowa — Ro Khanna wants you to know he did not come to Iowa for the usual reasons. Yes, Khanna is a politician — a first-term congressman from California’s 17th Congressional District who won reelection in November with more than 75 percent of the vote. And yes, now that the 2018 midterms are over, and now that the first presidential caucuses of 2020 are “only” 14 months away, pretty much anyone in Khanna’s line of work who descends upon the Hawkeye State is suspected of having designs on the White House.
But before I can ask whether Khanna is one of these 2020 aspirants, he preemptively rules it out — “100 percent.”
“I’d be doing things very differently if I were,” he insists.
So what exactly is Khanna doing? It’s the middle of December. It’s 22 degrees. The Indian-American congressman is wearing nothing but a lightweight gray suit and an open-neck dress shirt; no coat, no gloves, no hat. It’s a Saturday. He and his wife had their second child less than three weeks ago.
Yet Khanna, 42, just flew a thousand miles from Washington, D.C., to Des Moines, then climbed into a rented pickup and drove another 65 miles north to the rural town of Jefferson — population: 4,345 — where he has spent much of the day shaking hands, smiling for pictures and seeing the local sights, which in this case include a 168-ft.-tall modernist belltower and a working museum run by a bearded man who handcrafts furniture using tools, techniques and finishes from 1875.
Khanna says he is here because of something called the Forge. This much is true. When complete, the Forge will be the first fruit of a promising public-private initiative to bring tech jobs to rural America: a slick, $1.7-million workspace where national software consultancy Pillar Technology plans to hire up to 30 debt-free graduates of a new local career academy and pay them as much as $75,000 a year to be developers — instead of filling those same jobs overseas.
Khanna, whose district encompasses much of Silicon Valley, has long been a proponent of projects that use technology to fight the decline and depopulation of rural America; he’s made similar trips to Kentucky and West Virginia. After crossing paths earlier this year with Forge founder Linc Kroeger, Khanna emailed some of his more influential constituents and asked if they’d be willing to pitch in, and today a surprising number have followed their congressman to Jefferson for a celebratory gathering at the town’s homey theater.
“I believe this work can give young people in rural parts of the country — and in Iowa — an opportunity to stay and build lives and an economic foundation for themselves and their community,” says Microsoft Chief Technology Officer Kevin Scott, a native of rural Virginia.
“Jefferson could be a place that is a lighthouse for attacking this problem all over the United States,” adds LinkedIn co-founder Allen Blue.
Taking the stage, Khanna praises Blue and the others as “patriots” for “show[ing] that the digital revolution is one that every community should and can participate in.”
Later, however, Khanna makes it clear that his trip to America’s premiere political proving ground is about more than just the Forge. It’s really about selling Democrats on his vision of a “new New Deal” — a “progressivism for the 21st century” that “lays out what is going to be needed for a digital transformation.”
“I spent 10 years waiting to be in Congress,” he continues. “I have great admiration for our founders, who went to Washington to think and have ideas. But the irony is whenever someone does that now, everybody thinks they’re running for president. Let’s have people articulating a coherent vision for the nation and the world. That’s what I’ve tried to do. And my hope is that I can influence the presidential candidates and the House leadership.”
In other words, forget all those heated Democratic debates about how to avoid the mistakes of 2016, expand on the successes of 2018 and position the party, in the age of Trump, to compete not just on the coasts, or in and around cities, but across the rest of the country as well.
The congressman from Silicon Valley thinks he’s cracked the code.
Given the district he represents, Khanna’s ambition — and ambition might be too weak a word for it — is usually cast in terms of technology. It’s actually much broader than that. Since arriving in Washington in early 2017, he has methodically sought to make his mark on nearly every element of the Democratic Party’s post-Obama agenda.
“Certainly, Khanna has imbibed a lesson of the Trump era, which is that it doesn’t matter so much what people say about you as the fact that they recognize your name,” notes Scott Herhold, a columnist for the San Jose Mercury News. “He’s set a record for news releases shipped to my email inbox.”
Tech, of course, has been the subject of many of those emails. Amid controversies surrounding Facebook, Google and the proposed merger between AT&T and Time Warner, Khanna co-founded the House antitrust caucus late last year. (His basic view on tech overreach is that “if companies are engaging in anticompetitive behavior, they should be held accountable — but we can’t just reflexively say, ‘Break them up.’”) And in October, at Nancy Pelosi’s behest, Khanna unveiled a so-called Internet Bill of Rights that aims to protect users’ privacy while avoiding the hapless Luddism on display every time Congress forces someone like Mark Zuckerberg to testify on Capitol Hill.
But while Khanna’s relentless promotion of projects like the Forge can seem, at first glance, to suffer from the same sort of startup utopianism so effectively lampooned on HBO’s “Silicon Valley,” where every coder is constantly pledging to “make the world a better place,” he is also quick to point out that anyone who focuses on tech alone is missing the bigger picture.
“Soon, 60 percent of jobs are going to require technology,” he explains. “So I wouldn’t define technology as working for Microsoft or LinkedIn. If that were the case, what we’re doing in Jefferson, that’s narrow — that’s not a comprehensive solution. But technology is transforming every industry. It’s about advanced manufacturing. It’s about health care. It’s about agriculture. We have to make sure that people are credentialed for the jobs of the future.”
This obsession with what’s next — not just in tech, but in politics in general — has driven Khanna to almost manic levels of activity over the last two years. To combat income inequality, he has proposed a moonshot $1-trillion expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit. To battle joblessness, he has put forward sweeping legislation that would offer work to virtually any American enduring a lengthy period of unemployment. To counter soaring health care costs, he has collaborated with Sen. Bernie Sanders on a plan that would leverage foreign countries’ drug prices to lower prices in the U.S.
Meanwhile, Khanna and Sanders have also teamed up on the Stop Walmart Act, which would outlaw stock buybacks for corporate giants that pay less than $15 an hour, as well as the Stop Bad Employers by Zeroing Out Subsidies (Stop BEZOS) Act, which would enact a tax on large corporations equal to the federal benefits their low-wage employees rely on to make ends meet. The latter successfully shamed its eponymous target, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, into raising his employees’ minimum wage.
Khanna has positioned himself at the forefront of the growing progressive push to reform democracy as well, floating a raft of proposals that would reduce the power of parties and money in politics, such as a special credit card for every American citizen preloaded with $50 virtual “democracy dollars” to donate to their favored candidates. In 2016, Khanna declined to accept contributions from any PACs, then went on to co-found the House’s No PAC Caucus. At the same time, Khanna made sure he was the one of the first members of Congress to endorse Bernie Sanders in 2016, the first to endorse Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez two years later (after previously endorsing her rival, incumbent Rep. Joe Crowley), and the first to join the left-wing Justice Democrats.
All of this maneuvering adds up to something deliberate: a calculated message of futuristic populism that sounds more like the M.O. of a tech-savvy Scandinavian parliament than Bill Clinton’s triangulated politics or even Obama’s careful, consensus-seeking progressivism — with Khanna as the one-man think tank at the center of it all.
The fact that the congressman, who campaigned extensively for Hillary Clinton in 2008, is a fairly recent convert to populism itself — unlike, say, Sanders, who has been touting the same policies for decades — underscores just how quickly the Democratic Party has moved to the left, and how eager Khanna is to both reflect and reify that shift.
As a young wonk growing up in well-to-do Bucks County, Pa., Khanna’s first love was foreign policy. His parents — chemical engineer dad, schoolteacher mom — were both Punjabi immigrants; his maternal grandfather, Amarnath Vidyalankar, was a politician and an advocate for Indian independence who spent time in prison with Gandhi. “My grandfather was a legend in our family,” says Khanna. “He gave me a sense of the nobility of politics and the evils of colonialism.”
With those lessons in mind, Khanna wrote a letter in ninth grade to President George H.W. Bush, exhorting him to avoid the Gulf War. Later, at the University of Chicago, he spent two years and raised $120,000 organizing a conference on the “challenge of modern democracy.” As a law student at Yale, Khanna considered a career at the United Nations, until a roommate discouraged him. “They have no influence,” the roommate said. “If you really want to make a difference, get involved in American politics.”
Khanna didn’t waste much time. In the spring of 2004, the Nation magazine published an article about a wave of liberal challengers to pro-Iraq War Democrats. “The most serious” of these candidates, the magazine declared, was Khanna, then 27 years old. “It was very personal to me,” Khanna recalls. “Every time I went to the airport I was being stopped and profiled for 15 minutes.” He wound up losing the primary by more than 53 percentage points. Afterward, Khanna’s opponent pulled him aside and told him “politics is an organic process — you can’t just move into a district and run.” (Khanna had only recently arrived in the Bay Area.) Pelosi had some advice as well. “If I were you,” she said, “I’d get really involved in the Silicon Valley community. I’d go to Washington. Start to build — and then, who knows?”
Khanna took the advice to heart. Over the next decade, he worked as a patent lawyer. He taught law and economics. He wrote a book about advanced manufacturing. In 2009, he accepted a position as a deputy assistant secretary in Obama’s Commerce Department. Finally, in 2014, he decided to run again, this time as the darling of the tech elite, with endorsements from Google’s Eric Schmidt, Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg, and Yahoo’s Marissa Mayer — and a war chest to match. Fluent in startup-ese, Khanna pitched himself as a “disruptive” force, calling for “government 2.0” and a “reset” of Congress; he openly courted votes from Republicans and independents with a mailer highlighting incumbent “Mike Honda’s old-school liberal orthodoxy: Big taxes. Big spending.”
“The tech community is looking for advocates who will be really, really outspoken for tech,” Republican-leaning investor Ron Conway told the New York Times. “And Ro fits that mold.”
But Khanna lost again.
“I knew I had you beat two months into it,” Honda later told him.
“How?” Khanna asked.
“When you came out with a list of all your tech endorsers,” Honda replied, “I said, ‘There are a lot more nurses and firefighters and machinists in this district than technology leaders.’”
Two years later, Khanna launched one last insurgent bid against Honda. This time, he vowed to be a more grounded candidate.
“I did local papers and local coffees and really spent time meeting people who weren’t part of the tech world,” Khanna says. “And out of that I developed an understanding of how many people were being left behind.”
“What I realized is that the economic divide in my district mirrors the larger the economic divide in the country,” he continues. “If I had won the first time, I think I would have been more about, ‘How do we get tech into government? How do we get tech innovation?’ But these inequities within my own district made me think more broadly, and out of that I developed a greater sense of economic populism.”
“And then, of course, there was Trump,” Khanna adds. “That was a wake-up call.”
On Nov. 8, 2016, Khanna defeated Honda by 22 points — and Donald Trump won the presidency. Khanna sensed that a new era had begun.
“I didn’t see it coming,” he admits. “In fact, I remember my wife asking, ‘What if Trump wins?’ And [longtime Democratic strategist] Joe Trippi goes up to the whiteboard, and he basically mansplains how it’s mathematically impossible. But Joe was wrong. And that’s when it crystallized for me: We have to give communities a sense of economic destiny, a sense of having a role in a 21st-century economy. That’s my mission.”
Back in Iowa, it’s a few hours before the Forge event, and Khanna is standing behind a small podium in the basement of the Capitol building, trying to convey that message to the state’s Asian-Latino Coalition.
“We can make sure that every part of our country can participate in this new economy — if we have the imagination and commitment to do so,” he says. “People get that economy has changed. They just don’t want to be left out. When the president came into that void, he said ‘You built America. All these people who came after you are doing well. I want to bring you back.’ But people understand that’s not going to create jobs and prosperity. People are tired of sloganeering. They’re wondering what are the real solutions?”
Khanna is not short on “solutions.” Ask him whether initiatives like the Forge are too little, too late, and he will talk your ear off about his $50 to $100 million plan to modernize Abraham Lincoln’s idea of land-grant colleges by funding technology institutions at 50 heartland universities. Mention a federal jobs guarantee — an idea gaining steam in progressive circles — and he will steer the conversation to what he considers his more practical “subsidized jobs” proposal, in which the government would pay employers tens of billions of dollars a year to temporarily hire millions of unemployed Americans.
“It’s moving to the left,” Khanna explains — “but it’s moving to the left thoughtfully.”
Yet Hillary Clinton was thoughtful, too, and we all know how that turned out. The question that will determine whether Khanna winds up gaining the influence he so plainly craves — and eventually, perhaps, the power — is whether he can sell his 21st-century progressivism to voters outside his wildly idiosyncratic district.
“People don’t vote for policy platforms,” Khanna admits. “A president is there to give voice to a nation’s soul — and Hillary Clinton could have had a little more soul.”
After Khanna’s speech to the Asian-Latino Coalition, I ask what that sort of soul should sound like. His answer — that it should sound more, in some ways, like Trump — surprises me. At a time when, as my Yahoo News colleague Alexander Nazaryan once put it, “the mere notion of national culture is anathema to many liberals,” Khanna believes Democrats should stop ceding patriotism to a president intent on channeling it for his own divisive purposes — and even seize on one of Trump’s favorite antagonists to tell their own story of us versus them and good versus evil.
“I don’t want the world adopting China’s authoritarian capitalism,” Khanna tells me. “I want the world to adopt American democracy. So I agree with Trump that China is our biggest competition. Sure, I disagree with his ideas about what’s going to make America the winner in the 21st century. But Democrats have to have a message of patriotism. Why should people in Jefferson work with people in Silicon Valley? One reason is it’s going to help both of us have economic success. But the deeper reason is that we believe American values are actually universal values. If you believe that, then you can start to build common ground in red states and blue states and inspire a patriotism that says, ‘We’re going to win.’”
But how, I ask, is that different than Trump’s message?
“The difference with Trump,” Khanna says, “is that his patriotism is a negative patriotism. It’s ‘We’re going to win by being tough on China.’ That doesn’t work. I’m saying, ‘We’re going to win by being better. We’re going to be more innovative. We’re going to be a nation that finally reaches its potential.’”
Whether any Democrats follow the lead of a congressman from California who’s yet to start his second term remains to be seen. But in Iowa, at least — a place that’s heard its fair share of presidential pitches — people are listening.
After the Asian-Latino event, I saw Khanna speaking to a big man in a red turtleneck and black glasses named Jon Neiderbach, a former dark-horse candidate for governor, state auditor and the U.S. House who served in the Iowa government for nearly 30 years. When Khanna stepped away to shake more hands, I asked Neiderbach what they discussed.
“I was really impressed,” Neiderbach said, “because he talks in a way that I think will play in places like Jefferson. So I told him I hope we see him a lot over the next 12 months. And he went, ‘Well, we have this project in Jefferson, I’m sure I’ll come back for that.’ And I said, ‘No — I don’t mean for the project.’”
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