It’s an old realization that the Democrats are chronically in “mess.” Always that word. It’s like “hearty” with “soup.” When you think of disorder, you should think of Democrats. Even in times like these when the party is well sorted.
A more recent finding is that “Democrats are bad at sending messages.”
That’s wrong, too — but not because the Democrats are Well when messaging. That’s because messaging itself is a breeze.
Buying a catchphrase from Don Draper and pounding it might have worked in 2008 or 2012. But it shouldn’t be a congressional candidate’s strategy in a jaded 2022.
That’s why it’s so refreshing to see that John Fetterman, the Democratic nominee for Senate in the battleground state of Pennsylvania, continues to oppose Hollywood makeovers and Madison Avenue branding.
And how did that work for him? Well, in the second quarter, Fetterman managed to set a record fundraising for a Pennsylvania Senate race: $11 million.
From the start, no Photoshop or auto-tune has marred Fetterman’s dog-haired jacket, ragged goatee, or guttural voice. And something else along the way sealed his reputation as a man of the people. He had a stroke in May and, like millions of Americans, suffers from heart disease.
“I avoided going to the doctor even though I knew I wasn’t feeling well,” he said in a statement at the time. “I want to encourage others not to make the same mistake.”
Since then, he’s been busy improvising a fancy campaign, mostly on Twitter, which he dubs a “dog poop and motor oil smoothie.” His social media game is as immature as he is — heavy on emojis, GIFs, pop memes, and potshots at his classy Republican opponent, Dr. Mehmed Oz.
On Tuesday, he surfaced on Zoom for the first time since the stroke, sounding robust at a gathering of campaign volunteers. It is said that he will return to the personal election campaign from Thursday.
Fetterman has been as outspoken about his political views as he has been about his health. He’s a progressive. He is pro-universal health care, Black Lives Matter, abortion rights, fossil fuel abandonment, unions and a $15 minimum wage. Fetterman makes you think: Was that so difficult? Democrats can appeal to working people by supporting labor and Decarbonization, social justice and general health insurance.
Of course, he’s best known for his rust-belt style. Fetterman, currently Pennsylvania’s lieutenant governor, rose to prominence when Donald Trump roared about his 2020 loss in Pennsylvania — and he responded with facts and snorts on cable news.
Then, during the Democratic primary, Fetterman presented a stark contrast to his opponent Conor Lamb, a moderate with bipartisan hair — thick Kennedy locks slicked into a clean Republican side parting.
Fetterman is very different. He’s 6ft 8 tall, wears gym shorts year-round, and — let’s face it — looks like someone who, influenced by a different ideology, could storm the US Capitol, or at least lead a caravan of Antivax truckers.
He handily beat Lamb for the Democratic nomination.
The hell-raiser look is not trivial. It connects him with a boisterous and proudly ugly Pennsylvania energy.
Even Pennsylvanians who don’t share his politics admire his authenticity. “Whether I believe in everything or not [Fetterman believes in]I think he’s being honest with people,” a Republican anti-abortion activist told Bloomberg in May.
In fact, Fetterman is so Pennsylvania he’s reminiscent of Gritty, the 7-foot-tall Philadelphia Flyers mascot. Like that strange orange creature, Fetterman exceeds expectations. He has a master’s degree from Harvard, but it’s hard to see him among the TED talkers. Instead of the mild warmth of James Taylor, he injected thrash notes into the democratic sound.
“Metallica makes everything betterFetterman tweeted in April 2020. (“What’s your favorite song of theirs?” someone asked. “Yes,” he replied.)
Baby boomer Steve Bannon once attempted to make far-right politics “countercultural.” Tattooed Gen Xer Fetterman, who uses the word “weed” with abandon, reclaims the counterculture for the left, where it began and clearly belongs.
In short, Fetterman capitalized on his stance of owning the liberties to own the neos—both the neolibs, like Lamb, and the neocons, like Oz.
Which brings us to Oz. Fetterman got lucky with his Fish-in-a-Barrel opponent.
Oz is an oily, bordering on fraud, celebrity whose campaigning has often gone dark. He can hardly seem to find Pennsylvania on a map. The Oz family can claim an oceanfront mansion in Palm Beach, two apartments in New York City, and an obscenely large oneMegamansion in New Jersey that Oz and his wife have long called home.
On Wednesday, Fetterman sent a small plane over the Jersey shore. His banner read, “Hey Dr. Oz. Welcome home to New Jersey!”
Fetterman leads Oz for now. But the gap has narrowed somewhat in recent weeks, and Fetterman’s advisers warn that dark money already rolling into Oz’s campaign will give Oz a boost as November approaches.
On the other hand, Fetterman has no plans to change course. He doesn’t need someone to come by and get advice on his tie choices and show him a PowerPoint stack of messages. He speaks impromptu, he doesn’t practice damage control and, as he says, his views don’t change. “If you stand up for fundamental rights, you don’t have to ‘evolve’ on issues,” he tweeted in September.
The Democrats are not in disarray. In fact, they are more united on issues than they have been in a long time. According to a recent Pew poll, 81% prioritize gun control over gun rights. This is up from 69% in 2014. 80% believe abortion should be legal in all or most cases, up from 63% in 2007.
And according to a New York Times/Siena College poll, 92% of Democrats believe Donald Trump’s actions after the 2020 election threatened American democracy.
And now Democrats must forget about “messaging” once and for all.
Eccentric, carefree style is not part of the law. In fact, it was something Democrats used to excel at. Think Jerry Brown, Shirley Chisholm, Ann Richards. Today there are also examples: Stacey Abrams, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Maxine Waters.
Like Fetterman, these Democrats are showing how much better the party can do with more passion, more authenticity, more jokes, more mistakes, more guts, and much, much less news.
Virginia Heffernan writes a column for Wired and hosts the podcast This Is Critical.
https://www.latimes.com/opinion/story/2022-07-18/fetterman-democrats-midterms Op-Ed: Democrats don’t need ‘messaging,’ just more candidates who act like John Fetterman