August 31, 2022 | Reading Time: 5 minutes
Pennsylvania’s John Fetterman meets hate with humor
Can he turn politics around?
Editor’s note: This piece first appeared in slightly different form in Claire’s highly recommended newsletter, Political Junkie.
John Fetterman is a gigantic, progressive Democrat in a hoodie, tattoos, and cargo shorts. Currently the Lieutenant Governor of Pennsylvania, he hopes to replace Republican Pat Toomey in the United States Senate in November. Toomey is retiring, and with Donald Trump’s blessing, Pennsylvania Republicans made their lives far more difficult at the end of May by choosing the wrong candidate: they spurned former hedge fund CEO Dave McCormick, who might have picked up independents in this generally moderate state, in favor of TV doctor Mehmet Oz.
You probably know about all the baggage that Oz brought into the race. A skilled cardiologist at one point in his life, he turned his back on medicine to become a talk show host, wellness guru, and shill for the diet and supplements industry. Want to sleep better? Oz can sell you a $2,500 mattress for that, as well as sheets, pillows, weighted blankets and everything else that will guarantee a good night’s sleep.
Republicans literally have nothing to say for themselves, having actually done nothing of any real moment since George W. Bush left office. Following Donald Trump’s lead, the party’s comms are relentlessly dark, mean, critical and often cruel.
OK, if you have ever suffered from a sleep disorder, you know that’s a lie. But there’s more — perhaps you are feeling fat? Maybe you should consider System Oz, a wellness, intermittent fasting and exercise program that will help you lose weight in an amazingly short time. It will cause you to need a great many dietary supplements from Dr. Oz’s business partnership with iHerb. Want to be young? Beautiful? Have whiter teeth? Less Alzheimer’s?
Oz has you covered.
There will be more supplements involved. Lots more.
Oz’s financial disclosure pegs his fortune between $75 and $300 million.
So, Mehmet Oz knows supplements. What he doesn’t know much about is politics, campaigning or governing. He’s one of the mini-Trumps running around the country — JD Vance in Ohio, Blake Masters in Arizona — whose sole qualification for office is that he is rich.
Bizarrely, the poor, non-college educated, working-class white people who identify as MAGA Republicans seem to love voting for people who are insanely rich and who know nothing about government.
Due in part to the horrible campaign Oz has run, Fetterman currently has a comfortable, nine-point lead, according to fivethirtyeight.com. Despite the fact that he was felled several months ago with a heart attack and a stroke, had to come off the campaign trail, and is only now re-emerging on a limited schedule, Fetterman’s lead has shrunk a bit in recent weeks, but not much. Why?
Here is the answer you will not hear from any other pundit.
His comms — politico-speak for “communications” — are so funny.
Fetterman’s style is a breath of fresh air in a line of work that seems to attract every Gloomy Gus in America, not to mention every Ivy League graduate who wants to tell you that your life is no longer worth living because Joe Biden is president. (Yes, I’m looking at you, Ted Cruz.)
For the last five years, the GOP has made every day on social media into some kind of funeral. Republicans literally have nothing to say for themselves, having actually done nothing of any real moment since George W. Bush left office. Following Donald Trump’s lead, the party’s comms are relentlessly dark, mean, critical and often cruel.
Take five recent tweets issued from the Republican Party’s official Twitter account, @GOP:
- On foreign policy: “One year ago today, 13 American HEROES were killed in Afghanistan.”
- On student debt relief: “Typical Biden White House: more spending, no saying who will pay for it.”
- On immigration: “Joe Biden has been on vacation 95 days just this year and still hasn’t made time to visit the southern border.”
- On back-to-school: “It’s back-to-school season, and Democrats are bringing back their anti-science mandates.”
I corrected the punctuation where necessary, but you get the point. Republicans never say anything nice about anybody—even their own voters. And Mehmet Oz has followed suit.
In a recent tweet, he painted a bleak picture of life in Pennsylvania: “Record homicides. Murderers released onto the streets. The progressive policies of the Biden-Fetterman agenda have caused chaos in the streets and left law-abiding citizens terrified. It’s time to return law and order to our cities — I will do just that.”
The Biden-Fetterman agenda? Really?
And how about this: “I believe in individualism, John Fetterman believes in collectivism.”
In perhaps the nastiest attack I have seen, much less from a physician, Oz snapped that if Fetterman “had ever eaten a vegetable in his life,” he wouldn’t have had a stroke.
We will return to the vegetable theme in a minute. But the Fetterman response was pitch-perfect, speaking directly to Pennsylvanians about a condition that someone in nearly everyone’s family has had — and often made a full recovery from.
“I had a stroke. I survived it,” Fetterman tweeted. “I’m truly so grateful to still be here today. I know politics can be nasty, but even then, I could never imagine ridiculing someone for their health challenges.”
Oz is running one of the worst campaigns I have ever seen. He is an excellent argument for getting money out of politics, since had he not loaned the campaign upwards of $8 million of his own money, he would never have gotten this far.
But he also does stupid things.
Recently, Oz released an ad about inflation, in which he cruised the vegetable aisle in “Wegners” (no, it’s Wegman’s) looking for ingredients for his wife’s “crudités platter,” something the MAGA base can totally relate to, and purchasing salsa to dip the vegetables in, which no one in Pennsylvania would ever do (chips, duh!)
Fetterman responded with a video in which he held up a $7.95 pre-packaged collection of sliced vegetables and dip, and shrugged: “In PA, we call this a veggie tray! If this looks like anything but a veggie tray to you, then I am not your candidate. And I’m serious, Dr. Oz doesn’t even know the name of the grocery store that he’s in!”
Hence Oz’s grumpy jab about Fetterman not eating vegetables.
Undeterred, the Fetterman campaign is continuing to own the vegetable theme and having fun with it. Last weekend, a pair of canvassers went out dressed as broccoli. As you can see, one is carrying a sign that says: “I’m afraid Dr. Oz will dip me in salsa.”
Fun, right? This is what I want to emphasize.
Fetterman is introducing a new kind of campaign, producing ads that are effective because they are less negative than they are funny, human and often kind. We have gone for years watching perfectly nice Democrats scraping their jaws off the floor as Republicans lie, barrage them with insults and insist that Americans live in a crumbling country.
But Fetterman meets the MAGA challenge, countering GOP foolishness with humorous trolling. For example, having a plane drag a banner down the Jersey shore on a hot weekend, welcoming Oz back to the state.
Yes, although Oz has some history in Pennsylvania, he has lived in New Jersey (it is one of his 10 homes, none of which are in Pennsylvania) for decades. When he decided to run for Senate, Oz re-registered to vote from his in-laws’ address in Bryn Athyn, a wealthy suburb outside of Philadelphia. This has provided rich fodder for the campaign.
Hence, my favorite Fetterman trolls are about Oz’s home in New Jersey. For example, Fetterman has started a petition to get the good doctor into the New Jersey Hall of Fame, intended to honor residents of the Garden State for their accomplishments. Oz was a presenter at the 2019 inductions, saying proudly when interviewed, “I’m from New Jersey.” The Fetterman campaign has circulated this video, too.
Better yet, two working-class kids from New Jersey who made good, Bruce Springsteen sideman Stevie van Zandt and “Snookie” of Jersey Shore fame, have filmed videos emphasizing Oz’s ties to the Garden State. “You do not wanna mess around with John Fetterman,” Van Zandt warns. “Trust me. He’s a little outta your league. Nobody wants to see you get embarrassed. So come on back to Jersey where you belong.”
The beauty of these ads is that they call Oz a carpetbagger without calling him a carpetbagger.
“I heard you moved from New Jersey to Pennsylvania to look for a new job,” Snookie says in her high, nasal whine. “Personally, I don’t know why anyone would wanna leave Jersey, `cause it’s like the best place ever, and we’re all hot messes … but I just wanna let you know, Jersey will not forget you.”
The Fetterman campaign has learned something important about how to get ordinary people re-involved in politics: Entertain them. Don’t attack, don’t be cruel — just get your message across in a way that is funny and real.
I just can’t wait to see this guy in the Senate.
Claire Bond Potter is the Editorial Board's politics historian. A professor of historical studies at The New School for Social Research in New York City, she is the co-executive editor of Public Seminar and the publisher of Political Junkie. Follow her @TenuredRadical.