Photo: Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images
Senator John Fetterman once told Pennsylvania voters that he’d be a different kind of Democrat. Progressive, casually dressed, and plainspoken, Fetterman’s persona cut a refreshing contrast not just to other primary candidates but also to his eventual Republican opponent, Dr. Mehmet Oz. After he was elected last year, Fetterman initially seemed like a consistent figure. He maintained his support for the legalization of marijuana. He told the public about his hospitalization for depression, linking his plainspokenness to a rare kind of honesty. When federal prosecutors announced corruption charges against Senator Robert Menendez, a Democrat from New Jersey, Fetterman swiftly and repeatedly condemned him. Lately, though, his persona has worn thin. His stances on Israel and immigration reform are alienating the progressive base he once cultivated — and now he’s trying to rewrite history.
“I’m not a progressive,” he told NBC News in a new interview. “I just think I’m a Democrat that is very committed to choice and other things. But with Israel, I’m going to be on the right side of that. And immigration is something near and dear to me, and I think we do have to effectively address it as well.” His chief of staff, Adam Jentleson, said the Democratic senator is simply being consistent. “He spent the entire campaign telling people he wasn’t a down-the-line lefty,” Jentleson added.
True, Fetterman was never a lefty’s dream. He’s a gun owner who once pulled a shotgun on a Black jogger. But no matter what he or his staff say now, he is undeniably running away from a label he once embraced. On social media, he often referred to himself as a progressive, as X users pointed out. “Ready to keep fighting for a stronger Pennsylvania? Chip in whatever you can to help us take this progressive momentum all the way to the ballot box on May 15th,” he posted in 2018, during his successful run for lieutenant governor. The same year, he appeared with famed Democratic Socialist Bernie Sanders at a campaign event. “Progressive values have been the heart of my campaign. Whatever happens on May 15, I’m proud to be here tonight with @BernieSanders. #BernieForFetterman,” he posted. In 2020, he published an X post that read in part, “Progressive. Simple. Sacred. The union way of life.”
Fetterman’s new statements show “a maverick side,” NBC News suggested in its interview with the senator. Some political journalists may hope so. The media is always hungry for a maverick, someone whose depths can help them push articles and sell books. John McCain wore that title for years. But there are few true enigmas in American politics. Under scrutiny, McCain looked like a typical Republican. Fetterman, similarly, is a typical Democrat. There’s no political courage here, just the status quo in gym shorts.
His position on Israel is proof. “Liberal except for Palestine” is not a new concept, and he is hardly the only Democrat on Capitol Hill to ignore the toll of Israel’s war in Gaza. He may, however, be the only one who’s paraded around in an Israeli flag during a “March for Israel” rally in Washington while the forces of that country wipe out entire Palestinian families. His pugilism can be attractive when applied to a crook like Menendez. Applied to Israel, the result is ghoulish. His stance also surprised some former campaign staffers, who understood him to be a different sort of politician. In an open letter, 16 of them accused him of a “gutting betrayal,” citing his “overarching promise” to “forgotten communities.” Fetterman was unmoved.
On immigration, too, Fetterman has disappointed some followers. “I hope Democrats can understand that it isn’t xenophobic to be concerned about the border,” he told Politico earlier this month. He’s concerned, he said, by the nearly 270,000 border apprehensions reported by U.S. Customs and Border Protection in September. “Honestly, it’s astonishing. And this isn’t a Fox News kind of statistic. This is the government’s,” he said. “You essentially have Pittsburgh showing up there at the border.” Fetterman’s wife, Gisele, was once an undocumented immigrant; she became a citizen in 2009. As Politico notes, Fetterman highlighted her story during his campaign for Senate. Supporters could have reasonably interpreted that as a pledge of compassion, a sensibility that isn’t in evidence now.
As Fetterman puts distance between himself and the rhetoric that helped make him a senator, it’s clear that he isn’t a maverick, but a cynic. The problem may lie partly with the “progressive” label itself, which is understood quite differently by the Democratic Party’s activist base and by the men and women they put into office. Any politician can call themselves a progressive, and indeed many do, but the label is so vague that it often becomes a branding exercise. That certainly seems to be the case for Fetterman. He abandoned the label just as activists began pressuring him on tough subjects like Israel’s war in Gaza. This is stubbornness, perhaps, but it’s become something else, too. A genuine ideological core is taking shape.
Fetterman has disappointed activists for the first time, but not the last. Instead, take him at his word: He’s no progressive. The casual clothes and plainspoken demeanor are window dressing. Underneath it all, he’s as untrustworthy as the average politician. Maybe he bets that Pennsylvania voters won’t care. Reelection is years away, and his state is not known for its far-left politics. Even so, that bet is riskier than he seems to believe. He is good at getting attention, which can help — or harm. He can’t escape the fact that he ran on progressive politics and then dropped the label quite publicly when it became inconvenient. Voters who thought they were getting something new with Fetterman have found out they are getting more of the same. Nobody likes to be made a fool.