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COMMENTARY: Oz campaigns about campaigning; Fetterman sells a synthetic authenticity

by By George F. Will Washington Post | September 23, 2022 at 4:00 a.m.

SPRINGFIELD, Pennsylvania -- Election rallies in this "season of discontent" -- when was there a contentment season? -- feature an amiable dystopianism. On a recent afternoon, some cheerful but fretful residents of this Philadelphia suburb packed a hall to hear two children of immigrants, Nikki Haley and Mehmet Oz, deplore the problems afflicting the nation that attracted Haley's parents from India and Oz's from Turkey.

Oz, 62, a Republican seeking the Senate seat of a retiring Republican, has campaigned about campaigning. His opponent, John Fetterman, 53, had a stroke in May. Until agreeing last week to an Oct. 25 debate -- voting will have been under way for a month -- he seemed content to campaign primarily through social media snark and carefully controlled media exposures.

Distilled to its populist essence, Fetterman's campaign theme is: Oz's successes -- as cardiothoracic surgeon and a television talk-show host -- have made him wealthy, so, unlike me, he is unable to relate to the toiling masses. For Fetterman, being a mayor was his only toiling -- his only protracted employment -- until, in 2019, he shouldered the burden of being lieutenant governor.

The Philadelphia Inquirer reports that "for a long stretch lasting well into his 40s," Fetterman's "main source of income came from his parents," including "$54,000 in 2015 alone." As mayor from his mid-30s until he was 49, he earned $150 a month. In 2013, he paid his sister $1 for a loft she purchased for $70,000. He was mayor of Braddock (population 1,700) near Pittsburgh from 2006-19. The town's decay (population has declined; one-third of the remaining residents are in poverty) resisted whatever ameliorative talents Fetterman acquired with his degree from Harvard's Kennedy School.

"You'd be surprised," Dolly Parton says, "how much it costs to look this cheap." Imagine how much thought goes into Fetterman's feigned thoughtlessness about his appearance. Six feet 8 inches, tattooed arms, shaved head, a goatee. His signature costume is a hoodie and shorts, even in winter, perhaps even at parent-teacher meetings at his children's private school. His synthetic authenticity signals proletarian envy, a Bernie Sanders acolyte embarrassed by having uncalloused hands.

In "Breakfast at Tiffany's," Truman Capote's protagonist, Holly Golightly, is "a phony" but "a real phony" because "she believes all this crap she believes." Fetterman is skittering away from inconvenient beliefs he has espoused: Releasing one-third of incarcerated Pennsylvanians would not make the state less safe. Fracking is so risky, vast natural gas reserves should remain locked in Pennsylvania's Marcellus shale formation. Fetterman does not like big things (corporations, campaign contributions) other than big government. He says "our economy is a mess because of Washington," which his party controls. And he thinks the mess-maker insufficiently permeates and regulates Americans' lives.

Oz, too, has a past flecked with statements (e.g., fracking might be unsafe; abortion ends a life and hence is "murder") he would not have made had he anticipated that in 2022, he, like nine other Republican Senate nominees, would be waging his first political campaign. But unlike Fetterman ("Fetterwoman," his pink T-shirt announced at a recent abortion-rights rally), Oz had a serious life of substantial responsibilities -- heart surgery is a profession -- before hearing the siren song of politics.

Haley, former South Carolina governor and U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, and Oz gave their listeners frissons of anxiety: They say enough fentanyl was seized at the U.S. border in July to kill every American. Illegal immigrants during Joe Biden's presidency would, if gathered, amount to the nation's seventh-largest city. Sixty-five percent of Pennsylvania's fourth-graders were not proficient in reading before the learning loss during the pandemic.

If the Oct. 25 debate occurs, and if by Nov. 8 Fetterman seems not too stroke-disabled for Senate debating and negotiating, this will actually favor Oz by changing the subject from Fetterman's condition to Fetterman's positions. Oz's energetic campaigning has been his principal argument for himself. A better argument is that he is an unexotic, mainstream conservative focused on preserving law, order and the value of currency, whereas Fetterman's flamboyant grunginess serves to distract attention from his progressivism, which would delight Manhattan's sleeker precincts.

Vox populi, vox dei? For the sake of his reputation, let's hope not. Nationwide, primaries in 2022 produced a bumper crop of performative nominees nimble at reducing politics to extravagant gestures. If, in the next five weeks, Fetterman's act at last seems stale, his hoodie will not get to challenge the Senate's jacket-and-tie dress code. There are so many progressives like him straining to be transgressive, and so few standards remaining to transgress.

George Will's email address is [email protected].

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