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To this story in CitizenCast

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Why Doesn’t Anyone Like John Fetterman…

…except for voters?

Back during the fateful 2016 presidential election, when he was starting to get a sinking feeling in his stomach, former Governor Ed Rendell advised the Clinton campaign on a strategy to shore up Hillary’s prospects in Pennsylvania.

“Put her in a car with John Fetterman,” he said, “and let them drive through the state, talking to voters in every county.”

Rendell, long the master of what in politics was once called “the common touch,” had recognized what the elite political establishment still struggles with when it comes to the 6 foot 8, tattooed, progressive Braddock, Pa mayor turned lieutenant governor: That, in the last 15 years or so, the electorate’s hunger for authenticity has trumped ideology, and that, as the Democratic Party veered more and more into its elite, bi-coastal brand of politics, its roots as the champion of working families was suddenly in jeopardy.

“You know as well as I do that a person of color or a woman would never be allowed to present himself or herself for inspection the way John does,” says Rashed, the consultant. “You can’t blame him per se, but he’s definitely a beneficiary of a double standard.”

Alas, we know what happened. Rendell’s advice went unheeded, (one former Clinton campaign official tells me that, in their Brooklyn—Brooklyn! — campaign headquarters, there was precisely one staffer with midwest roots, cleverly nicknamed by all his Harvard and Yale colleagues “working class”), and Clinton lost Pennsylvania amid an exodus of Rust Belt middle-class voters. And now we know that wasn’t a one-off; the drift of folks — of all colors — into the Republican fold who shower after work has steadily continued.

That’s why the Fetterman story this campaign cycle is so fascinating. The Democratic establishment has once again lined up against him — locally, Mayor Kenney, labor leader Ryan Boyer, and Democratic City Committee Chair Bob Brady are all effectively behind the straight-from-central-casting centrist candidate Conor Lamb, even while Fetterman maintains a gargantuan lead in the polls with some three weeks till election day.

What’s going on here?

Calculating political risks

First, let’s put this on the table: If you watched the Democratic primary debate last week, you saw a horrific performance by Fetterman. He was no doubt advised to sit on his lead and say nothing of consequence, and he succeeded in reaching that low bar. He was scowling, inarticulate, and — worse — wholly unprepared, going so far as to propose taxing billionaires but unable to answer at what level of income or wealth such a tax ought to kick in.

“You know it when you see it,” he said more than once, tripping over his own words, before offering up this gem: “If they have yachts.”

Lamb and North Philly’s Malcolm Kenyatta, who has impressed on the campaign trail, rightfully jumped in to call out his amateurish reply. You want to be a legislator? You’d better have specific policy proposals.

So it could be that the Democratic party establishment is operating on the merits, and just doesn’t think Fetterman is good enough or smart enough to be a U.S. Senator. Could be, but that seems a little too devoid of calculation and too loaded up on principle for any political party in 2022, no?

What’s more likely is that there’s some raw political calculation going on, but it just may be wedded to some flawed and antiquated logic. I’m told, for example, that Brady just doesn’t think Fetterman’s Bernie Sanders-like platform can win a general election in a purple state — and that, with the fate of the Senate at stake, this is no time to take a chance. Conor Lamb, the thinking goes — with his military background, his proven ability to get Republican and swing votes, and his Ken doll-like hairdo — is the safer bet come November against either Dr. Oz or David McCormick.

But let’s examine that. During the debate, I found myself shaking my head in agreement with just about everything Lamb said. He played the political adult in the room. He talked about how silly it is to focus on overturning the filibuster — that’s a fantasy masquerading as policy. He endorsed the power of consensus building and compromise.

Fetterman rails about Joe Manchin — looking at Lamb and referring derisively to the West Virginia Senator as “your mentor” — but glosses over the fact that a deal was right there to be had with Manchin on a groundbreaking $500 billion environmental bill in place of Build Back Better; it would have been the biggest investment this country has ever made in fighting climate change. But giving up on the laundry list of progressive goodies in Build Back Better was a nonstarter to progressives, so…we got nothing.

When Fetterman runs full bore against Manchin as a fake Democrat and Bernie Sanders fantasizes about running a primary challenger against him, it’s an advertisement for political naïveté. Manchin is a Democrat in a state Trump won by 40 points. The smart political move is to give Manchin what he needs to stay viable at home, in exchange for his support on some of your agenda. If you’re a Democrat, progressive purity only turns a crucial senate seat back over to Republicans.

Lamb has done his best to reflect this tradition of political pragmatism, but to no avail, and that ought to be a wake-up call about the type of candidates these times call for. We’ve seen a parade of Conor Lambs before, right? Blow-dried candidates right out of central casting who hit their marks time and again with pithy, if unexciting, talking points.

Maybe it’s time to consider that, as inequality and opportunity gaps have soared these last 15 years, these central casting candidates are precisely what the electorate has been rejecting all this while. Think of it; what was the election of Barack Obama — and especially the repudiation of Mitt Romney — really about, other than a refutation of the typical pol? What was Trump, for that matter?

This election might not really be about the issues

If party elders are making decisions on Fetterman based on his stance on issues — he’s too far left — they just might be missing the point. As Rendell intuited six years ago, he’s something different, and maybe representative of a way back for Democrats into the good graces of working-class voters. A dude who, as mayor, had the names of constituents who had been murdered actually inked into his skin just might be the kind of contrast against plutocrats like Oz or McCormick that plays well in a general election.

Then again, maybe the establishment’s hands-off approach to Fetterman is rooted in more personal matters. This piece by Holly Otterbein in Politico details all the ways in which Fetterman has refused to play nice with the political establishment at all levels — national, state and city. He’s not a schmoozer or a backslapper or a pol who works personal relationships. He’s aloof; shy, even. Party leaders are still smarting over his refusal to wait his turn and gracefully bow out of the senate race six years ago, where he finished third behind Katie McGinty (another shortsighted party choice, masquerading as “safe”) and Joe Sestak, another practitioner of poke-your-eye politics.

Black leaders, in particular, eye Fetterman with suspicion, and it has little to do with the fact that he blew off an appearance before the Philadelphia Black Clergy or the issue Lamb and Kenyatta have tried to use against him in the campaign: He once pulled a shotgun on a person of color who he erroneously thought had fired a weapon. (Consider this: Maybe Fetterman’s refusal to apologize for l’affaire shotgun is an acknowledgment that it might just help him in the fall: “In large parts of the state, pulling a gun on somebody is just what you do on a Friday night,” says political consultant Mustafa Rashed. “It might not be as much of a disqualifier as we’d like it to be.”)

How is it possible that a party whose rival is full of seditionists and appeasers is not a shoo-in for victory? How is it that the Democrats on Capitol Hill are still led by a gerontocracy? Where’s the new thinking?

No, the animus toward Fetterman from Black leaders has more to do with seeing him as a hulking embodiment of White privilege. Black and female elected officials have paid their dues in the extreme and have had a bevy of consultants along the way telling them that how they dress matters. Now here comes this dude, wearing basketball shorts to meet Joe Biden.

“You know as well as I do that a person of color or a woman would never be allowed to present himself or herself for inspection the way John does,” says Rashed, the consultant. “You can’t blame him per se, but he’s definitely a beneficiary of a double standard.”

That sentiment was no doubt behind Boyer’s Facebook posting on Fetterman at the outset of the campaign — “What has John done to warrant a U.S. Senate seat? If Black women are the base of the Democratic Party … shouldn’t the state party recruit an African American candidate?” Boyer subsequently endorsed…not African-American Kenyatta, but the Wonder Bread candidate, Conor Lamb.

But in their zeal to coalesce around a safe general election candidate, the movers and shakers in the Democratic party establishment forgot to bring along a key constituent: Actual voters.

According to polling, Fetterman is headed for a landslide victory. Yes, a stumbling, fumbling Fetterman on a debate stage against either Oz or McCormick smacks of peril, but it just might be that what this guy says doesn’t even matter. When everything is all f’d up, folks tend to opt for a maverick. (It took the economy tanking in 2008 for the electorate to turn the country over to a Brother.) The old electoral rationale — the checking of boxes like military vet, Ivy League grad, smooth talker — just might be obsolete.

In the post-Trump world, maybe the new calculus will become the one Richard Kahlenberg identified in Bobby Kennedy’s iconic 1968 presidential campaign: “A liberalism without elitism, and a populism without racism.” For all his faults, Fetterman comes closer to that than Lamb, no?

Defining the Fetterman brand

I remember watching Hillary Clinton’s 2016 convention acceptance speech — right here in Philly — with a group of friends. A woman turned to me afterward and said, “Well, that’s that. She just elected herself president.” Not so fast, I thought.

The brilliant political strategist Neil Oxman says that winning a political campaign comes down to three things: The candidate that defines him or herself, the opponent, and the stakes shall be the ultimate victor. Hillary, I remember thinking that night, said what you wanted to hear, my dear Northeastern urban progressive friend. But it’s a big country and state out there and Hillary’s job tonight was to convince swing voters she’s not corrupt or beholden to a party of corporatists. And her policy-laden speech failed on that score.

So let’s apply the Oxman postulate to this race. Has there been a better politician in recent years at branding himself than Fetterman? Lamb and Kenyatta haven’t stood a chance at convincing voters that what you see with this guy ain’t what you get. Fetterman’s lead has been big enough that he hasn’t even needed to try and define his opponents, other than shrugging off their attacks as those we’ve always seen lobbed by career pols.

And the stakes? Fetterman’s ads attest to a working-class dystopia out there, an overly-foreboding tone perhaps to those of us in the elite bubble, but one that is perhaps right on for those increasingly left behind in the age of stagnant wages, rising inequality, and oncoming automation.

John Fetterman has real flaws, but by trotting out the same-old, same-old caricatures of candidates — Bob Casey has begat Katie McGinty has begat Conor Lamb — it raises the real questions of this campaign: How is it possible that a party whose rival is full of seditionists and appeasers is not a shoo-in for victory? How is it that the Democrats on Capitol Hill are still led by a gerontocracy? Where’s the new thinking?

Judging by his debate performance and his platform, Fetterman may not himself be a new thinker. But, as Rendell was getting at in those halcyon pre-Trump days, he might be a harbinger of a new type of politics that, ready or not, is now upon us.


The Citizen Voter Guide: Primary Election 2022

WATCH: John Fetterman and Jeff Bartos

The Odd Couple

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Header photo by Governor Tom Wolf Flickr

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