Q&A: Ro Khanna is the progressive who wants to transport Democrats to the future

Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) was feeling good. 

The progressive congressman saw President Biden’s signing of the CHIPS and Science Act Tuesday as just one of several legislative victories in the Democrats’ arsenal heading into the midterm elections.

Some of those accomplishments, he believes, can help bring about a new vision for the party, where innovation and patriotism merge to remake a stronger, more economically inclusive America. 

Khanna chatted with The Hill while catching a JetBlue flight to New Hampshire — his second trip to the critical early primary state this summer — to discuss recent achievements on climate, his friend Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and electoral strategy beyond November 2022. 

This interview has been condensed for length.

The Hill: Big day for you.

Khanna: Yeah, it was! I’ve been working on this legislation [the CHIPS and Science Act] for almost three-and-a-half years. It’s been a long journey, but it’s great to see the president sign it. 

My whole mantra has been a new economic patriotism. That we have to focus on bringing the new factories, the new industry to places that have been totally deindustrialized. That deindustrialization and job loss in factory towns like New Castle, Ind., and Janesville, Wis., is part of the cause of the polarization in our nation.

The Hill: What would you say is the most critical message that voters can glean from this?

Khanna: We need to make things in America again. For 40 years, we had wrong policies that shipped our production offshore, factory towns suffered with divorce, with suicides, with the destruction of community because of corporate greed that basically let factories go offshore. Our politicians did nothing about it. And now it’s time to make things in America.

The Hill: Talk about the bipartisan nature of that.

Khanna: The initial versions of this we introduced were [with] Todd Young, a Republican senator from Indiana, and [Rep.] Mike Gallagher [R], who’s a Marine from Wisconsin. It was all about building things and making things in this country.

The Hill: How much credit do progressives get for this particular achievement?

Khanna: On the CHIPS bill, the progressive caucus really helped to make sure the money isn’t going to stock buybacks and there’s strong guardrails on this. The reality is that making things in America and having the government work with the private sector in business is an FDR policy. That’s how we had a victory of production. I think progressives often don’t appreciate how much FDR’s victory of production and mobilization of production was working with business leaders. 

Progressives should embrace the broader vision of working with business to reindustrialize America. To have new factories, to build new things. It should be not just a check on corporate greed, but what is the affirmative vision?

The CHIPS and the [separate] climate bill is just a down payment on having a vision for a new economic patriotism. Imagine if we could open up a new plant, a new factory in every congressional district in this country? Or at least two per state. And have President Biden out there, opening these new factories, standing with business leaders and union leaders in these towns. It would change the psychology of America. Communities that feel down and out will feel that they and their kids can participate in the next generation of economic vitality again. It’s not just about the job and the economy, it’s about patriotism and aspiration.

The Hill: [On working with Manchin on climate issues]: Would you say that’s an area where you can see room for additional progress? Progressives having more of a give and take?

Khanna: Progressives can be very proud of the climate provisions because it’s groups like Sunrise and [Sen.] Bernie’s [Sanders (I-Vt.)] campaign and NRDC [Natural Resources Defense Council] and Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace that made climate the priority, that had it be such a big part of Build Back Better. That had me say to Sen. Manchin, this is the one thing you can’t compromise on. If it wasn’t for their activism and it was ordinary times, we might be 10-fold lower.

The Hill: How much of a boost do you see Biden gaining from this? Can that be sustained through November?

Khanna: He should get a boost. Let’s see how it plays out. I think the important thing is we need to be in the communities across the country talking about the benefits people will get. 

One of the challenges of a policy of tax credit versus the policy of CHIPS, [is] the policy of CHIPS is a little more visible. You have the government stand with the CEO of Intel in Columbus, Ohio, and open up this new factory and talk about 7,000 jobs. And so the government gets credit and is part of that message. That’s why the New Deal was so successful — FDR took credit for everything that happened.

The challenge with the tax credit is it’s over 10 years, and how do we make that visible? How do we say that a company that’s succeeding, that it was because of the government’s support? It’s a bigger challenge for us as legislators to be in those communities and explain what the government is doing and how it’s going to help their lives.

The Hill: [On the FBI raid of former President Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate]. Could [it] end up hurting Democrats in November?

Khanna: I think it depends on what comes out of it. What is the follow-up action that emerges?

The Hill: The very fact that there was a raid, you don’t think is necessarily enough to handicap Democrats?

Khanna: It depends on what they find and what actions the Justice Department takes. There’s no way to gauge this. 

The Hill: Are you saying on the record that you want Biden to run in 2024?

Khanna: I will support him.

The Hill: In terms of your preference for him running?

Khanna: That’s his decision. He’s the incumbent president. If he runs, he’ll have my support. He’s got the wisdom to make the decision. I don’t think he’d run if he didn’t think he could win.

The Hill: Are you still going to New Hampshire tonight?

Khanna: I am. The Young Democrats invited me. I’m just boarding JetBlue as we speak. 

The Hill: Obviously, your trip will get some attention among the local press and national for its first-in-the-nation stuff. I’m curious what you would say to the oncoming speculation you’re probably about to get in the next 24 hours.

Khanna: [New Hampshire Democratic Party Chairman] Ray Buckley invited me and I said sure. I went up there on a book talk and this came out of it. I would just say that I’m going up because the Young Democrats invited me.