One of Bernie Sanders’ best qualities is that he is laser-focused on the issues that matter most to everyday people. You cannot get Bernie off topic. He does not want to talk about himself. He even resisted criticizing his opponents. Bernie is the most on-message politician in American public life, hammering relentlessly on the need for adequate healthcare, tackling the climate catastrophe, and raising the minimum wage. (Ben Burgis and I recently analyzed the debate that Bernie did with Lindsey Graham, in which Bernie cleaned Graham’s clock, in large part because Bernie focused on exposing how Republicans do not care about the needs of working people.) This is an important source of Bernie’s appeal: people get the sense that he is not in politics because he enjoys it (he does not seem to enjoy it) but because he is devoted to improving the lives of others.
John Fetterman is the Democratic candidate for this year’s Pennsylvania senate election. He was a Bernie supporter, and so Democratic centrists disliked him at first, but Fetterman trounced the boring centrist he ran against in the primary. Now that Fetterman is critical to Democrats retaining control of the Senate, the party is funneling money into his race.
I like John Fetterman a lot and have high hopes for him. He speaks movingly about the work he did improving the economic health of down-and-out Braddock, Pennsylvania when he served as its mayor. Fetterman seems to genuinely care about his city. (Pete Buttigieg, on the other hand, seemed to very obviously be using his position as mayor as a springboard to higher office.)
Fetterman is currently recovering from a stroke and has had to campaign mostly online. He has certainly embraced the “online” aspect of campaigning, using Twitter to relentlessly troll his opponent, celebrity doctor Mehmet Oz. Most of Fetterman’s barbs attempt to paint Dr. Oz as a carpetbagger who had not spent much time in Pennsylvania before running for the Senate there. A Fetterman ad shows “images of [Oz’s] New Jersey mansion of a video of him kissing his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame [and] says he’s ‘not one of us.’” Fetterman has put a great deal of effort into pursuing this line of attack, going so far as to get Jersey Shore’s Snooki to record a message to Dr. Oz. Previously, to troll Oz, Fetterman hired a plane to fly a banner over New Jersey welcoming Oz “home.” (Is that what campaign dollars are going toward?) Fetterman’s latest stunt is starting a petition to get Dr. Oz inducted into the New Jersey Hall of Fame. Fetterman’s tactics have certainly attracted press coverage. The New York Times notes his “towel-snapping virtual campaign of sassy online memes,” and the Daily Beast asks “Could John Fetterman shitpost his way to the Senate?”
I’ll be honest: I think all of this is stupid and morally frivolous, and I wish John Fetterman would not do it. Even if it turns out that in 2022, you can “shitpost your way to the Senate,” you shouldn’t. A progressive senate candidate should force a discussion on things that matter, not get the media talking about how sick his Twitter burns are. I also think Fetterman is taking a big risk here by assuming that Pennsylvania voters can actually be influenced by memes. (Deray Mckesson found out the hard way that being big on Twitter doesn’t translate into electoral success when he badly lost Baltimore’s Democratic primary election for mayor.)
One of the core problems with Fetterman’s approach is that it assumes voters care more about whether Dr. Oz is from New Jersey than they do about minimum wages, grocery prices, healthcare costs, or gun violence. Personally, I don’t actually think the “carpetbagger” point is that compelling, because if a candidate had good politics but was from out-of-state, I’d vote for them in a heartbeat over someone who had terrible politics but deep local roots. Fetterman is appealing to an emotional sense of Pennsylvania pride and the state’s suspicion of Jerseyites. It’s fair to say you want candidates who actually know your state well, and that there is an arrogance to rich people who simply assume they can represent any state they like—witness Nick Kristof’s entitled delusion that he could run for governor of Oregon because he was an important man who’d enjoy the job. But ultimately, what is wrong with Dr. Oz is his horrible reactionary politics. Oz’s campaign platform includes “responding to the global Chinese threat,” being a “dear ally” to Israel, cracking down on unauthorized immigrants, escalating fossil fuel production, “pushing back on cancel culture,” stopping abortion, preventing gun control, giving control of elections to the states, and giving police a “powerful voice in Washington.” He is running as a hard-right Republican and needs to be kept out of the Senate because of what he will do to the country.
Fetterman made good ads a few months back about unions, climate justice, healthcare, and the minimum wage. But now I keep seeing headlines about his memes and trolling. Most of this is focused on Oz’s residency, rather than his scary agenda or his background as a snake oil salesman. In fact, the far more devastating criticism of Dr. Oz is that he is a quack who got rich peddling false hope to sick people. There is at least one well-made anti-Oz ad that hits this theme hard, although it also goes after him for illegally employing undocumented workers (hypocrisy, of course, but not terribly compelling), and it doesn’t emphasize enough the harm caused by his prescription of useless miracle cures.
As I say, maybe John Fetterman’s memes about Dr. Oz’s residency will be compelling to Pennsylvania voters. He’s leading in the polls at the moment. But Democrats who want voters to come out for them really ought to emphasize their agenda rather than just mocking their opponent. What will you do in the Senate? I want to see progressive candidates get behind the Economic Bill of Rights. I want them to show that they’re not going to be do-nothing Democrats who think their job is finished when they beat the Republican. It worries me that a Fetterman ad that popped up for me on YouTube was all about how I should donate to help “flip the seat blue,” not about what John Fetterman would actually do as a senator. Issues went unmentioned. And while Fetterman might think he can “do both,” having his social media team do sick burns to appeal to the “extremely online,” and occasionally hiring planes or Jersey celebrities, while still talking about issues most of the time, it’s not actually possible. The public’s attention is finite, and every moment you’re talking about one thing is time you’re not talking about something else, so you’ve got to pick and choose what you want the narrative of your campaign to be. Right now the narrative of John Fetterman’s campaign is “Dr. Oz is from New Jersey,” and I find this uninspiring.
I think it is a very serious problem that Democrats do not have a clear message on things that matter to people, and if they get wiped out in November that will be a big part of why. I am increasingly feeling as if I am trapped in a Groundhog Day-like time loop, because every morning’s headlines feature some new supposed revelation about January 6. This is on purpose—Democrats have deliberately chosen to try to keep January 6 in the news as much as possible in the hopes voters will care about it more than they care about being unable to afford diapers and gas. Personally I think it is a bad message and that Democrats will not be able to distract enough Americans from the fact that the party is terrible at fighting for things to actually materially improve ordinary people’s lives.
I would like to believe in John Fetterman. But he needs to take his political cues from Bernie Sanders, who obviously cares about using the power of elected office to try to change lives. I am not convinced from Fetterman’s current campaign that he cares enough about his substantive agenda. If he does, he’s allowing himself to become distracted and bogged down in immature mudslinging. He should stop.