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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Teixeira: The Way of the Fetterman

The following article by Ruy Teixeira, senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, politics editor of The Liberal Patriot newsletter and co-author with John B. Judis of the new Book “Where Have All the Democrats Gone?,” is cross-posted from The Liberal Patriot:

If Democrats lose Pennsylvania, they will have a lot harder time winning the 2024 election. Sure, there are non-Pennsylvania paths but it becomes a way heavier lift, closing off, for example, holding the “Blue Wall” as a sufficient path to victory.

Right now, Biden leads Trump in the RCP running average by three-tenths of a percentage point. Too close for comfort! (Plus the running average has Biden behind in every other swing state.)

So: how to do it—make sure Pennsylvania stays blue in 2024? Well, in 2022 there was exactly one Democrat who managed to flip a Senate seat: John Fetterman, who captured Pennsylvania’s Class 3 seat by a solid 5 points. Famously, Fetterman has a distinctive persona which makes him seem like not-a-typical-Democrat at all. This undoubtedly helped him with working-class (noncollege) voters among whom he did significantly better than Biden.

But there’s more to Fetterman’s persona than his massive stature, hoodie, and shorts. He’s also a straight-talker in a lot of areas where standard-issue Democrats fear to go. When he ran for Senate, while he wobbled a bit, he wound up declaring decisively:

Any of the issues that I ever had with fracking is really around environmental regulations and once those were passed and they were addressed…you know, I support fracking…I absolutely support energy independence and making sure that we can never be held by a country like Russia and making sure that we produce as much American energy as possible, and I fully support fracking.

Not too many Democrats are willing to go on record these days with full-throated support of producing fossil fuels! And since his election, he’s continued to carve out an independent path. Like this:

…I’m not a progressive, I’m not that kind of a label or anything like that…I said that before the primary in ’22, and that’s how I’ve always believed. And I think these have all been very easy calls. I follow the moral clarity, not the polls or any silly labels.

Or this:

We do have a crisis on the border—and we have to look at the numbers that are the size of Pittsburgh showing up on the border. You can’t just say, ‘Oh yeah, OK. It’ll all work itself out’…I think if you really want to address immigration in the way that it deserves, we first must also have a secure border.

Or this joint statement with Pennsylvania’s other Senator, Bob Casey, on the Biden administration’s decision to freeze approvals for liquified natural gas (LNG) export permits:

Pennsylvania is an energy state. As the second largest natural gas-producing state, this industry has created good-paying energy jobs in towns and communities across the Commonwealth and has played a critical role in promoting U.S. energy independence…

While the immediate impacts on Pennsylvania remain to be seen, we have concerns about the long-term impacts that this pause will have on the thousands of jobs in Pennsylvania’s natural gas industry. If this decision puts Pennsylvania energy jobs at risk, we will push the Biden Administration to reverse this decision.

And just in case anyone out there doesn’t “get” where he’s coming from relative to many in his party:

What I have found out over the last couple years is that the right, and now the left, are hoping that I die…There are ones that are rooting for another blood clot. They have both now been wishing that I die…

It’s just a place [the “progressive” label] where I’m not…I don’t feel like I’ve left the label; it’s just more that it’s left me.

Clearly, Fetterman has declared his independence from the progressive left. He’s modeling a combination of strategic flexibility, honesty, and courage, I will dub The Way of the Fetterman, in a nod to the ancient Japanese way of the samurai.

Looking at the situation in Pennsylvania today, you can see how The Way of the Fetterman is very much in order for Democrats in the Keystone State. In 2024, around two-thirds of Pennsylvania eligible voters will be working class, which projects out to around three-fifths of actual voters. Because we now live in the Upside Down, Democrats reliably win the college-educated but lose the working class. That means that, given the disproportion between the two groups, Democrats need to win the college-educated by way more than they lose the working class to win the state.

In 2020 Biden managed to do this, though by barely enough to win the state. In 2022, Fetterman did much better, almost breaking even among working-class voters and romping to victory. So far (where data are available), this pattern is not evident in Pennsylvania polling this cycle. In the high quality New York Times/Siena poll from the fall, Biden carries college voters by 18 points in Pennsylvania but loses working-class voters by an identical 18 points. That’s a sure recipe for defeat.

In a more recent (January) Bloomberg/Morning Consult Pennsylvania poll, Biden actually carries college-educated voters by less than he loses the working class. Not good. In the same poll, working-class Pennsylvania voters prefer Trump over Biden by 19 points on the economy, 15 points on crime, 25 points on immigration, 17 points on the cost of everyday goods, and 17 points on gas prices.

This calls for The Way of the Fetterman! Convince these voters that you, like Fetterman, are a different kind of Democrat. Instead, as Matt Yglesias puts it:

[W]e continue to see incredible levels of over-emphasis on turnout and mobilization…To win the election, the important thing is to reassure people who are to Democrats’ right on key issues.

The Way of the Fetterman means not being afraid to offer such reassurance, in the recognition that this is strategically wise and that voters’ concerns on these issues are real and not just made-up by conservative media (the Fox News Fallacy). Oddly, as Yglesias also points out, Biden’s instincts are probably in this direction, so it is a shame he doesn’t follow them.

No doubt part of the reason for this faint-heartedness lies in his fear of displeasing the very vocal progressive left, which is well-represented both within and outside of his administration. He believes displeasing them would weaken him and his re-election bid. But the opposite is true. As Janan Ganesh astutely observes in the Financial Times, comparing Biden’s conduct to Keir Starmer’s:

For swing voters, a leader who disappoints their own party is bold. Holding the line against internal dissent is proof of vision and virility. When Starmer drops a commitment to spend an annual £28bn on the green transition and declines to reopen the question of Brexit, politicos suspect a faint heart. The public sees someone answering one of the central questions about an aspiring national leader: is he or she the master of their party, or the creature of it?…

Biden has hardly addressed the master-creature question. Democrats entertain all sorts of explanations for his low ratings—an inadequate White House spin operation is a favourite—except that he has given them too much….Outside of foreign affairs, where his support for Israel upsets a generation of progressives, there are few cases of President Biden displeasing liberal Democrats. (Unlike Senator Biden, who did it all the time.)

Very recent results also suggest the potential efficacy of The Way of the Fetterman. Democrat Tom Suozzi easily dispatched Republican Mazi Pilip in the special House election in New York’s 3rd congressional district. He was mercilessly attacked by Pilip on immigration and crime. And how did he respond? Like this, as reported in The New York Times:

If I run my campaign and just say, ‘I’m Tom Suozzi, I’m a Democrat and my opponent is a Republican,’ I’ll lose this race,” Mr. Suozzi told union carpenters on Saturday at a rally on Long Island. “People are upset Democrats haven’t been tough enough on things like the border.”

“Exactly!” “That’s right!” “Yes, sir,” some in the crowd hollered in approval.

“I’m tougher than you’ll ever be,” Mr. Suozzi razzed back….

At events across the district, he has bucked liberal orthodoxy to call on President Biden to lock down the border. He said a group of migrant men charged with assaulting police officers in Times Square should be deported: “That’s outrageous. Kick ’em out!

It’s The Way of the Fetterman! Time for Democrats to declare independence from the progressive left and follow in Fetterman’s footsteps.

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