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The One Thing Ro Khanna Thinks Donald Trump Gets Right

Would you like to interview Ro Khanna? Progressive guy, co-chair of Bernie Sanders’ 2020 campaign, congressman representing Silicon Valley, interpreter of Big Tech, cheerleader for Joe Biden who is trying, any way he can, to help the Democrats sell their accomplishments — or sell anything at all? Sure, it won’t be a problem. Just tweet at him. He’s always checking the replies. He does late-night TV and mainstream TV and partisan TV. Ben Shapiro, Katie Halper, Michael Moore, Brian Kilmeade, Christian Broadcast Network — he’s done them all. He’ll join your podcast, your radio show, he’ll come to you live via Fox, MSNBC — whatever you watch.

“I have gone on almost anything,” he tells me.

Khanna, the genial 45-year-old serving in his third term in the U.S. House of Representatives, has adopted a go-anywhere, do-anything media strategy. Do you sense pure media savvy, or a whiff of desperation? The question might matter more if Khanna didn’t feel so alone in his approach. The Democrats have “a story to tell,” as Barack Obama said at the White House this week, but a lot of trouble telling it, and everyone seems to know, but little seems to change.

With his party facing a dismal outlook in the midterms this fall, Khanna is asking Democrats to take a lesson from the master of the news cycle. “One of the things, as terrible as Donald Trump is,” the congressman says, “he does these rallies. So there’s this sense of movement.”

“We need a sense of motion and energy and excitement.”

Ro Khanna in Motion

As he steps into his office on Capitol Hill, Ro Khanna is already on the phone. His communications director, Marie Baldassarre, cradles two iPhones of her own, tapping and scrolling, tapping and scrolling. She has lined up three interviews on this particular Friday, one of them with a progressive podcast, two on Fox — plus a reporter to watch the interviews.

She began working for Khanna about nine months ago. Her old boss, Sheldon Whitehouse, the 66-year-old senator from Rhode Island, was a bit milder, his most regular public appearance being a weekly “Time to Wake Up” speech on climate change, which aired on C-SPAN. So when Baldassarre arrived in Khanna’s office, she was told to learn the world of TV and media booking.

“That’s definitely a priority in this office,” she says. “I think he feels like he’s good in that format — at making a concise point.”

And he is. In his office, Khanna sits down in a leather chair and places his phone call on speaker and mute, waiting for his segment to begin on the Hartmann Report, a leading daily podcast on the left, hosted by Thom Hartmann. Khanna is a regular guest, subjecting himself with strange ease to rapid-fire questioning on one policy topic after another. Rick in St. Petersburg, Fla., wants to know about micro-plastics. Tim in Hendersonville, N.C., is upset about price-gouging in the lumber industry. David in Oneonta, N.Y., is calling back to follow up on the question he asked last month about a Medicare loophole. (Khanna remembers and looked into it.)

The tenth and last caller is Patrick in West Los Angeles. Patrick says he recently saw a political ad on YouTube claiming that Joe Biden is responsible for taxes on Social Security.

The host cuts in. “Wait a minute,” Hartmann says. “Reagan! Reagan was the one who started taxing Social Security benefits in 1983.”

“No, I know that,” Patrick says. “But this is what the ad said.”

The caller suggests Biden begin what he calls a “weekly address of conservative lies,” asking Khanna to deliver the idea to the White House. Khanna nods. “Patrick, look, I agree with you. I think it’s got to be more than weekly. It’s got to be daily. I mean, Trump woke up every morning, and he had no agenda other than a simple goal, which was to win the news cycle.” Democrats have to care about it, too, he says. “We’re not aggressive enough. We’re not out there enough.”

Ro Khanna in Conversation With the White House

Despite having worked for the president’s rival in the 2020 primary, modeling himself as part of a new generation loyal to Bernie Sanders, Khanna has a good relationship with Joe Biden. He talks often, he says, with White House chief of staff Ron Klain and senior adviser Cedric Richmond. Baldassarre notes helpfully that Khanna has become a kind of “liaison” between the White House and the progressive community. But you don’t see him pushing back on policy. Unlike his colleagues in the Squad, he has voted with the administration 100 percent of the time.

And yet, as POLITICO reported last month, Khanna’s name is the one Sanders advisers are pushing for a presidential run. They worry that without a candidate on the left in the next open primary, Bernie’s progress in the ideological debate will be lost. “I was flattered,” Khanna says, “but I’ve been very clear” — it’s not something he’s looking at. A progressive president will succeed “eventually,” but not yet. He says he is excited to support the president’s reelection.

It’s Biden’s messaging, not the message, that he seems to disagree with.

And on this topic Khanna shifts into “off the record” speak, punctuating every few actual words with the phrase — off the recordoff the recordoff the record — like he’s redacting a document. It’s the rare instance in which he sounds inarticulate.

What Khanna will say for readers is this: “Biden’s instincts are much better than all the junior staff who work for him,” he tells me. “He speaks in language that’s not politically correct. When his staff winces at things, he’s channeling what real Americans think. And I think they’re too careful. I think: Let him be out there. Let him speak. Let him inspire. Don’t try to over-protect him. I mean, that’s the only thing that I can think of . . .” he says, trailing off.

Consider Ro Khanna’s own district, California’s 17th.

The area spans parts of Silicon Valley and, in approximately 185 square miles, contains $11 trillion in market capital. One big tech company in the area is Intel. The chip-making corporation is pledging to build semiconductor fabrication plants outside Columbus, Ohio, bringing thousands of jobs to the area. “I would be taking weekly trips to Columbus,” Khanna says.

If Trump were still in office, “the whole country would have known about it.”

Biden could go there, he says, and people could see a party with energy. “A forward motion. A sense that we are on the march. On the move. It seems like Washington is not moving. It’s all caught up in staleness.” And in this imagined trip to Ohio, Khanna envisions Biden on stage “with a new generation of active, exciting members with him,” he says — not needing to mention, of course, that he would be one of them.

Ro Khanna in the Cheap Seats

Ro Khanna was 27 years old when he saw Barack Obama deliver his speech at the Democratic National Convention in 2004. From the cheap seats at the Fleet Center in Boston, he attended as a volunteer for John Kerry, watching the future president deliver what he felt was an “I love America” speech.

Less than 10 years later, Khanna ran for his Congressional district, losing to seven-term incumbent Mike Honda. Two years later, he ran again and this time, he won. Khanna is now one of the most visible young Democrats in Congress. Inside the bookcases in his office, memoirs by Gene Sperling and Elizabeth Warren flank a potty-training manual. (Khanna has two young children at home. As a rule, he and his wife do not discuss them in political settings.)

A former lecturer of economics at Stanford University, Khanna is academic by nature, conversant in the technology of his district and how to transfer some of that wealth to the rest of the country. But he draws some blanks on the cultural fascination with his district. Khanna makes a point of reading People magazine, just to “see if I’m keeping up,” he says. “I used to have this challenge on pop culture.” When I ask whether he’s watching “The Dropout,” a Hulu series about Silicon Valley’s most well-known fraud case, the story of Elizabeth Holmes and Theranos, Khanna says no, but also doesn’t seem to know what I’m talking about. That night, at drinks with friends, he tells me a few days later, they explained the show and told him, “You really should be watching this.”

While he is eager to model at least parts of Trump’s approach to the news cycle, he does not share the same appetite for celebrity entertainment. At the Gridiron dinner in Washington last weekend, Khanna agreed that the featured Republican speaker, Chris Sununu, was “genuinely funny and witty.” But when a guest turned to him mid-speech and said, “That guy could be president,” Khanna flinched. “I was like, really? This is what we need in this country? Like, the bar is entertaining and stand-up comedy? I mean, it’s better to have a sense of humor than not. Lincoln had one. Reagan had one. But the deification of entertainment as, like, the criteria for what we want in our president — it was amusing to me.”

In his office, Khanna clips his iPhone into a tripod by his desk, staring into the small screen. As he flits from the Hartmann podcast to a meeting with progressive leaders to a hit with Fox News Digital, the congressman has the look of a man who is waiting — a guest in his own building until the next generation truly takes over. In Washington, the big-name Democrats who have power or have come close to it — Joe Biden, Nancy Pelosi, Chuck Schumer, Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders — are all over 70.

Why has the transition to a newer generation been so slow? There are two reasons, Khanna says. One is structural: Running for office still requires money and name recognition. But the second reason is “philosophical.”

“We are in such a time of flux that the familiar is more comfortable for people. People are craving stability.

“But there will be a moment when people say, ‘OK, it’s time for the new.’”

Ro Khanna on Fox News

Khanna’s last interview of the day is with Fox News’s “America Reports,” in the rotunda of the Cannon House Office Building. He has been asked, and not for the first time, to talk about rising oil prices. On Fox’s daily programming, Biden is to blame for rampant inflation, but Khanna is asking viewers to consider the role of the corporations. As chair of the House Oversight Subcommittee on Environment, he has waged a monthslong campaign against oil executives, forcing six to testify before lawmakers for the first time late last fall.

He likes going on Fox. Some activists on the left criticize him for it, but for Khanna, it’s a sport. He enjoys the pressure of debate, the ability to measure his own performances after the fact. “If you are a Democrat and not going on these shows,” Khanna says, “then you’re not getting intellectually challenged. You’re not hearing the counter-argument. You’re not seeing the blind spots to your point of view.” After each hit, he sometimes checks Twitter to read the reviews. A recent appearance on Neil Cavuto’s show, he says, wasn’t one of his best interviews, but Cavuto had raised some “very good points,” also about oil prices, and this he enjoyed.

“Frankly, it made me think harder about the question.”

In the rotunda on Friday, when the interview with “America Reports” ends, Khanna doesn’t move from his spot in front of the camera. His head is down, his earpiece still tucked in.

He’s listening to the hosts talk about him.

“They were commenting on what I was saying,” he explains.

“They said I was right about something.”

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