The Vaguely Encouraging Politics of John Fetterman

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John Fetterman — the hulking, tattooed, hoodie-wearing lieutenant governor of Pennsylvania — is the Democrats’ best hope of stealing a Senate seat from Republicans this fall. And while few politicians can match his style, or could, Democrats can learn a lot from his approach.

Part of Fetterman’s skill as a politician is that he appears to have managed to transcend some of the factional divisions that have plagued Democrats in recent years. He has many of the same friends and foes as the party’s progressive faction, having backed Bernie Sanders for president in 2016 and stomping on moderate frontrunner Conor Lamb in last week’s primary for the US Senate. Yet he managed to avoid demands from progressives to make suicidal political commitments.

He is in favor of hydraulic fracturing and nuclear energy, for example, two big no-no’s for the left. He says he wants President Joe Biden to continue his pandemic-era predecessor’s policy of deporting asylum seekers at the southern border. Despite past support for Medicare for All, he is now evasive and evasive about his stance on this litmus test. And at a time when pro-Israel groups and progressives are at war in Democratic primaries across the country, he vowed to “look into” the US-Israel relationship.

Despite the stiff arming of many left-wing political boards, he won a lot of praise from leftists. One even argued that Democrats should emulate Fetterman and “focus less on dry political issues and more on eliciting an emotional response.”

That’s good advice — I’ve been telling Democrats to relax and be less ambitious for two years now — but it’s dizzying to hear leftists claiming it as their own. And they actually underestimate the case: Fetterman not only “focuses less” on politics, he practically ignores it.

The “Issues” section of his campaign website has virtually no text, just a bunch of headings – minimum wage, immigration, health care, “the union way of life” – with links to videos. The section on health care, for example, features a 30-second clip of the candidate saying that health care “is a basic human right, no different from food, housing, or education.”

The silly side of my brain means it could mean anything or nothing.

What would it mean if health care in the United States were no different from education in the United States? It could be something like the UK’s National Health Service – except it’s national, whereas education in the US is purely local. What about food? This is almost entirely provided by the private sector, with means-tested SNAP benefits to care for those most in need. Shelter? On the contrary, it is even less universal than health care in the United States.

In context, Fetterman is consistent — he comes across as a guy with broadly progressive instincts who wants to make health care cheaper for more people. But it avoids any specific commitment to a program or proposal. It’s the antithesis of the spirit Democrats brought to the 2020 primary, in which everyone was supposed to be ready to debate the fine details of various Medicare expansion programs.

It’s largely a matter of personality (“vibes,” as kids say these days) rather than ideology. Yet a personality that minimizes details is inherently moderating.

Fetterman’s minimum wage video, for example, is full of praise for the dignity of labor and the perils of life on the margins, but it doesn’t mention the usual progressive promise of a $15 wage. ‘hour. That’s not to say Fetterman opposes a $15-an-hour minimum wage. But the lack of details reflects an openness to compromise and a spirit of pragmatism.

A similar dynamic is at work on the issue of marijuana legalization. Democrats haven’t acted on a bill that would do that, not because they oppose it, but because they’re trying to pass sweeping legislation that would expunge the criminal records of those convicted of marijuana offences. It’s a bridge too far for moderates in both parties, but Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and progressives don’t want to settle for less.

Fetterman ducks all that debate. “This idea that we allowed a plant to be illegal and to be criminalized in this country is absurd,” he says. Formally speaking, it does not commit to one side or the other of the factional divide. But for voters with limited attention, the simple message is the same as the moderate message.

This approach to campaigning is not only more effective than the tendency of Democrats to present bullet points of specific policy commitments. It’s also more honest.

There was something absurd about candidates releasing detailed “plans” for this and that in the 2020 campaign. Anyone who follows Congress knows the legislative process doesn’t work that way. Whatever an individual member’s opinion on a given issue is only one factor among many in determining what will actually be presented and how they will vote on it.

It’s understandable that this vogue for details has evolved – Hillary Clinton liked the idea of ​​detailed blueprints in contrast to Sanders’ grand ideas, as her argument was that he was unrealistic. But the planning quickly degenerated into an activist tick box and helped propel the Democrats to the left.

Fetterman refuses to play this game, and due to his roots in the Sanders camp, the left gave him an assist. It’s a courtesy they should extend to candidates who haven’t endorsed their standard bearer. Moderates, meanwhile – many of whom pride themselves on having a plan to get things done – should remember that specificity is an enemy of pragmatism. And both factions of the party should consider that, on the issues that matter to them, almost any Democrat would be preferable to a Republican.

More from Bloomberg Opinion:

• San Francisco Shows Democrats Have a Seismic Challenge: Michael R. Bloomberg

• Why there is no midterm drama on the Democratic side: Jonathan Bernstein

• Democrats could make things even worse for themselves: Ramesh Ponnuru

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Editorial Board or of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Matthew Yglesias is a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion. Co-founder and former columnist of Vox, he writes the Slow Boring blog and newsletter. He is the author, most recently, of “One Billion Americans”.

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