To those of us inside the bubble of the People’s Republic of Philadelphia, John Fetterman’s trolling of his opponent, TV doctor and Jersey resident Mehmet Oz, is funny, right? First, Fetterman shells out for a plane patrolling the skies of the Jersey shore with a banner reading HEY DR. OZ, WELCOME HOME TO NJ! ♥ JOHN.
Then the Democratic senate nominee enlists first Snooki from MTV’s Jersey Shore, who addresses Oz in an ad: “I know you’re away from home and you’re in a new place, but Jersey will not forget you,” and he follows that up with none other than Springsteen sideman and Sopranos alum Steven Van Zandt: “Whaddaya doing in Pennsylvania? Everybody knows you live in New Jersey. And you’re just using your in-law’s address over there.”
Now Fetterman has started an online petition to induct Oz into the Jersey Hall of Fame. On one level, it is a funny, tongue-in-cheek way to define your opponent — to say to voters, he’s not one of us. But will it be effective? Is it smart politics, and, moreover, is it a sign of things to come? Does it represent one of the lasting ramifications of Trumpism — the normalization of trolling in our politics, and a concomitant rejection of the art of political persuasion?
“I think all of this is stupid and morally frivolous, and I wish John Fetterman would not do it,” writes Nathan J. Robinson in Current Affairs. “A progressive senate candidate should force a discussion on things that matter, not get the media talking about how sick his Twitter burns are.”
For the record, Oz has lived for 30 years in a North Jersey mansion overlooking the Hudson River. (It’s interesting that that’s the difference Fetterman is harping on, and not, say, the fact that Oz served in the Turkish military.) To Independent voters — who comprise between 12 and 15 percent of the Pennsylvania general election electorate — are Oz’s Jersey roots that outrageous?
There’s ample history to suggest that voters don’t object to carpetbagging as much as pundits think, particularly when it involves bold-face name candidates with lots of name recognition. (See: Clinton, Hillary and Kennedy, Bobby). I’d wager that few would object strenuously if Oz had long resided in, say, Cherry Hill, right? So to the average independent voter, preoccupied with his or her own kitchen table issues, are 90 miles on the Jersey Turnpike disqualifying?
What’s really at work here is that, far from trying to persuade swing voters, Fetterman’s trolling is aimed at firing up his progressive base. It’s as if he’s still running a primary campaign. And that may be by necessity: The fact is, Fetterman has been off the campaign trail recovering from a stroke, and Oz has failed to capitalize on essentially having the field to himself.
“What is the Fetterman campaign to do?” political strategist J.J. Balaban of Technicolor Political said when I ran by him my concerns this week. “They found a way to stay on offense while their candidate is doing a Weekend At Bernie’s Pennsylvania remake. Look at the cards they were dealt, not the cards you wish they had. It’s the summer when a lot of voters aren’t paying attention and it’s showing signs of life (which is a phrase that literally applies here!) and rallying part of the base (something that is important for Democrats in the Biden era).”
As usual, an astute Balaban analysis. At some point, Fetterman has to pivot to a message that isn’t just about where his opponent lives. I keep coming back to the fact that general elections in the Keystone State come down to what we’ll call “What about me” voters — those 13 percent nationally who voted for Obama twice and then flipped to Trump in 2016. Yes, some of them were deplorable, but not all. Most are non-ideological, practical — and feeling like they’ve long been ignored. While candidates troll one another, they’re left to wonder: What about me?
Gubernatorial candidate Josh Shapiro seems to get that. He could spend all his time painting his insurrectionist opponent, Doug Mastriano, as a seditionist; instead, he’s tempered his defining of Mastriano by speaking at the same time to the real-life interests of voters. It’s why earlier this week, he held a press conference at McGregor Industries in Dunmore, and released an economic recovery plan that’s heavy on innovative manufacturing investments and job creation. (He’d create a new Office of Economic Growth and Workforce Development that will report directly to the Governor, a one-stop-shop to help businesses cut through red tape, secure permits and licenses, and create jobs).
“What is the Fetterman campaign to do?” Political strategist J.J. Balaban of Technicolor Political said when I ran by him my concerns this week. “They found a way to stay on offense while their candidate is doing a Weekend At Bernie’s Pennsylvania remake.”
Now, to be fair, hardly anyone who isn’t the most hardcore geek even knows Shapiro released a plan this week, giving rise to the age-old political koan: If a policy position falls in the woods and no voters are around to hear it, does it even make a noise?
But you see the danger Fetterman is flirting with. Let’s go into our way back machine and revisit the 1984 Democratic presidential primary campaign. Remember how Walter Mondale swatted down JFK-wannabe Gary Hart, the self-proclaimed candidate of “new ideas,” with the then-iconic line from the Wendy’s hamburger commercials: Where’s the beef?
Hart did have real policy chops, but Mondale defined him nonetheless. Fetterman runs the risk of being seen as the beef-less, or unsubstantial, candidate — which is saying something when you’re up against Oz, who once said on Fox News: “Schools are a very appetizing opportunity. I just saw a nice piece in The Lancet arguing the opening of schools [during Covid] may only cost us 2 to 3 percent, in terms of total mortality. Any, you know, any life is a life lost, but … that might be a tradeoff some folks would consider.” And we’re harping on where this guy lives?
For the record, Oz has lived for 30 years in a North Jersey mansion overlooking the Hudson River. To independent voters — who comprise between 12 and 15 percent of the Pennsylvania general election electorate — are Oz’s Jersey roots that outrageous?
When Fetterman speaks about the murder victims in his hometown of Braddock who motivated him to run for office in the first place, he strikes an authentic tone. When he trolls Oz, he just seems like a funnier Trump. Is that really where we want to be?
And that may be why this troll-or-not-to-troll debate is starting to roil. “I think all of this is stupid and morally frivolous, and I wish John Fetterman would not do it,” writes Nathan J. Robinson in Current Affairs. “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.”
The brilliant writer Anand Giridharadas responded on Twitter: “There is no contradiction between running an inspiring campaign and being able to critique with actual fire. We don’t need fewer Democrats who know how to fight. We need more.”
Yes, but who you’re perceived to be fighting for matters. If Fetterman and Oz mutually snipe and troll, Fetterman’s muscularity might make frustrated progressives feel good. But if independent voters dismiss it all as just more noise, aren’t we back to status quo, pox-on-all-your-houses politics?
I can remember when politics used to be about the art of political persuasion. In the 1980s, I was going to grad school at NYU and lived in the East Village. Every year, public opinion polls would show that a majority of New Yorkers favored capital punishment. And every year, Democratic Governor Mario Cuomo would crisscross the state, engaging the issue head-on, bending public opinion to his point of view in opposition to the death penalty. He’d talk about how state-sanctioned murder was really an “instruction in killing,” and that the criminal justice system needed more mercy and love than it did escalating blood thirst. (His TV stints with New York City newsman Gabe Pressman were legendary.) Lo and behold, every year, the State Assembly failed to muster the votes to go against the governor’s wishes.
No one would say Cuomo was some milquetoast liberal. He was a fighter, but he was also a politician who knew that politics was often about eschewing ideology and getting to common ground. Sometimes that called for deal-making, sometimes bullying, sometimes persuasion — all the amino acids of public policymaking. Can John Fetterman pull those levers?
When Fetterman trolls Oz, just as when he rails against Joe Manchin, whose home state went to Trump by 40 points, it placates the base — and nothing else. There’s still time for our U.S. senatorial campaign to be characterized by a smart debate on what matters in your life. We’ll see if Fetterman and Oz are up to that back and forth.
RELATED STORIES ABOUT THE ELECTORAL POLITICS FROM THE CITIZENHeader photo courtesy Governor Tom Wolf / Flickr