Comment: Democrats, listen up: Fetterman is no policy wonk

The Senate candidate’s lack of specifics conveys an openness to compromise and a spirit of pragmatism.

By Matthew Yglesias / Bloomberg Opinion

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

Part of Fetterman’s skill as a politician is that he seems to have successfully transcended some of the factional divides that have hobbled Democrats in recent years. He has many of the same friends and enemies as the party’s progressive faction, having endorsed Bernie Sanders for president in 2016 and stomped moderate favorite Conor Lamb in last week’s primary for U.S. Senate. Yet he has managed to avoid progressives’ demands to make suicidal policy commitments.

He’s favorable to fracking and nuclear power, for example, two major no-no’s for the left. He says he wants President Biden to continue his predecessor’s pandemic-era policy of deporting asylum-seekers at the southern border. Despite past support for Medicare for All, he’s now evasive and non-committal as to where he stands on that litmus test. And at a time when pro-Israel groups and progressives are at war in Democratic primaries across the country, he’s promised to “lean in” on the U.S.-Israel relationship.

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

It’s good advice — I have been telling Democrats to chill out and be less ambitious for two years now — but it’s dizzying to hear leftists claim it as their own. And they actually understate the case: Fetterman is not merely “focusing less” on policy, he’s practically ignoring it.

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

The wonk side of my brain wants to say that could mean anything or nothing at all.

What would it mean if health care in the U.S. were no different than education in the U.S.? It could be something like the United Kingdom’s National Health Service; except that’s national, whereas education in the U.S. is purely local. What about food? That’s provided almost entirely by the private sector, with means-tested SNAP benefits to take care of the neediest. Shelter? If anything, that’s even less universal than health care in the U.S.

In context, Fetterman is coherent; he’s portraying himself as a guy with broadly progressive instincts who wants to make health care cheaper for more people. But he’s avoiding any specific commitment to any program or proposal. This is the antithesis of the spirit Democrats brought to the 2020 primary, in which everyone was supposed to be prepared to debate the precise details of the various schemes to expand Medicare.

This is largely a question of persona (“vibes,” as the kids are saying these days) rather than ideology. Still, a personality that de-emphasizes details is inherently moderating.

Fetterman’s video on the minimum wage, for example, is full of encomia to the dignity of work and the perils of life at the margins, but it doesn’t mention the usual progressive promise of a $15-per-hour wage. Now that’s not to say Fetterman opposes a $15-per-hour minimum wage. But the lack of specifics conveys an openness to compromise and spirit of pragmatism.

A similar dynamic is at work on the issue of marijuana legalization. Democrats have failed to act on a bill that would do that, not because they oppose it but because they are trying to pass sweeping legislation that would expunge the criminal records of people convicted of marijuana offenses. That’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 sidesteps this entire debate. “This idea that we have allowed a plant to be illegal and to be criminalized in this country is absurd,” he says. Formally speaking, he’s not committing himself to either side of the factional divide. But to voters paying a limited amount of attention, the simple message is the same as the moderate one.

This approach to campaigning is not only more effective than Democrats’ tendency 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 any individual member thinks on any given issue is but one factor of many in determining what will actually come to the floor and how he’ll vote on it.

It’s understandable how this vogue for specifics evolved; Hillary Clinton liked the idea of detailed plans as a contrast to Sanders’s big ideas, because her argument was that he wasn’t being realistic. But plans-ism quickly degenerated into activist box-checking and helped propel Democrats leftward.

Fetterman refuses to play this game, and because of his roots in the Sanders camp, the left has given him a pass. This is a courtesy they should extend to candidates who didn’t happen to endorse 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 they care about, almost any Democrat would be preferable to a Republican.

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

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