“So, in other words, you hate America?”
That’s what a progressive friend said this week, after I expressed some outrage over the fact that liberals don’t seem to mind one iota that John Fetterman, their Democratic senatorial nominee, hadn’t agreed to debate his opponent, Dr. Mehmet Oz, because he still hasn’t fully recovered from the stroke he suffered during the primary campaign.
Can Fetterman do the job, both as a candidate and officeholder? As someone who recently had a minor stroke, likely a complication from surgery, I can tell you it’s a fair question. I’ve had no typical stroke-like symptoms — no slurred speech, no droopy eyelid — but the waves of fatigue that wash over my body every day make it so I can barely sit through an hour-long Citizen staff meeting, let alone lead a political rally or chair a senatorial committee.
So weighing Fetterman’s physical fitness for office is legitimate, full stop. And, given that his campaign wasn’t transparent about the effects of his stroke back in the spring only heightens the stakes of the conversation now.
But let’s pull back the aperture of our lens, shall we? L’affaire Fetterman’s Stroke really raises some serious questions about our normalizing of political hypocrisy, on the Left as well as the Right. And it’s feeding a “pox on all their houses” backlash among the electorate at the exact time we need voters to step up and vote for something.
“I’m so sick of politicians,” someone at a dinner said a few weeks back. “They’re all alike,” another guest chimed in. There was widespread assent: We elect charlatans and rogues, no matter their political stripe.
It wasn’t that long ago, after all, that a bevy of MSNBC commentators and other critics were filling the airwaves with questions about the state of mind of then-President Donald Trump. Google “Trump” and “dementia,” and you find some never-ending speculation, enough that Trump quite comically took a cognition test and ridiculously preened about having “aced it.”
Now, the same folks who hectored Trump into that sideshow display are seriously arguing that Fetterman’s cognitive skills aren’t relevant? At least my progressive friend — “You hate America” — was honest. She wasn’t disagreeing that it’s fair game to question the qualifications of a candidate who, first, misled about his mental faculties and, now, is reticent to debate because he still has speech challenges. No, she was actually saying that her side winning matters more.
And that’s where we’re at. Look around. Larry Krasner, the city’s chief law enforcement officer, at first refuses to honor a lawful subpoena from a state House select committee — created with four Democratic votes — that’s investigating his job performance and likely seeking to impeach him. Sounds an awful lot like Trumpian behavior from a fierce Trump critic, no? And now Krasner is seeking to quash the subpoena in court.
How exactly does that differ from Trump’s legal machinations in the case of the classified documents he’s alleged to have pilfered and stored at his country club? Are you only for the rule of law when it’s convenient? When it aligns with your political ends?
Then there’s the action taken by Democratic candidates like our own Josh Shapiro in the primary, insinuating themselves in Republican primary campaigns in a bald-faced attempt to choose their opponents — usually of the MAGA variety. It’s a little hard to convince the electorate that Doug Mastriano is a dangerous extremist — which he is — when your campaign aired ads intended to get Republican voters to choose him as their standard-bearer so you’d have an easier time of it in the general election. We used to call that situational ethics.
Of course, there’s nothing new here. Both sides in our political warfare have long embraced principle when there’s precisely no risk to doing so, and have eagerly relinquished it at the first sign of benefit. (Remember the deafening silence of feminists during revelations of Bill Clinton’s caddish behavior?) But what does seem to be new now is that the political calculation is off. It’s actually bad politics today for Democrats to risk being seen as matching Republicans on the hypocrisy meter.
When you think of the modern-day Republican party, you think of one-time Trump critics turned whiny sycophants like Lindsey Graham and Ted Cruz. They represent the ultimate in hypocrisy. Shouldn’t the Democrats want to paint a contrast? Differentiate themselves as the party of what’s right in a world full of shit that’s gone wrong?
It’s what Aristotle — neither a D nor an R — meant when he observed that “Character may almost be called the most effective means of persuasion.”
A few weeks back, I was at a dinner party when the talk turned political. “I’m so sick of politicians,” someone said. “They’re all alike,” another guest chimed in. There was widespread assent: We elect charlatans and rogues, no matter their political stripe.
Call me crazy, but, at a time when it’s so easy for voters to dismiss politicians of all denominations as “all the same” — corrupt, self-centered, out of touch, whatever — wouldn’t adhering to principle be worth a try?
In my experience, the smartest political observers are those we seldom hear from, the messaging consultants behind the campaigns. I called one, a consultant for Democratic candidates, and tried my argument on him. He promptly accused me of unwittingly calling for unilateral disarmament. Whether it’s campaign financing or redistricting, Democrats, he argued, are forced to fight fire with fire — unless and until they take office and make the rules more fair.
I hear that. But, as with so much else, it seems the advent of Trumpism has changed the old calculations. In the Trump era, it just may be that you only win if you’re seen as not part of the scheming, conniving, calculating political class.
And you do that not by matching the other side in crass calculation, but by exercising the lost art of persuasion in a way that models the practicing of civic virtue. This is as old as our history. It’s what Harry Truman was getting at when he said, “My definition of a leader in a free country is a man who can persuade people to do what they don’t want to do, and like it.” It’s what Aristotle — neither a D nor an R — meant when he observed that “Character may almost be called the most effective means of persuasion.”
Now that election season is heating up, here’s to a little more character and a little less convenient duplicity in our politics.
MORE POLITICAL COVERAGE FROM THE CITIZENJohn Fetterman speaking at a campaign event August 28. Photo via campaign Facebook.