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The progressive left has been displeased with Democratic Pennsylvania Sen. John Fetterman since October, when he emerged as one of the national scene’s most vocal, least conflicted supporters—from either party—of Israel’s war in Gaza. Now he’s taken an equally confrontational position on immigration, joining the ongoing discussions about a potential border security bill in the Senate by admonishing liberals to concede that conditions at the boundary between the U.S. and Mexico constitute a crisis.

“I hope Democrats can understand that it isn’t xenophobic to be concerned about the border,” Fetterman told Politico in early December, describing the monthly number of so-called encounters between undocumented migrants and U.S. enforcement agents as “astonishing” and not “a Fox News kind of statistic.” (That number, for the most recent month available, was 242,000. Annually, encounters have more than doubled from pre-pandemic levels.) A week later he told NBC News, in response to questions about both Israel and immigration, that he’s “not a progressive”—a declaration which came as a surprise to those who remembered him repeatedly describing himself as one while he was running for office in Pennsylvania.

The question this raises—and that NBC News raised, explicitly, in the headline of its report—is whether Fetterman is becoming a “maverick,” that fabled creature of Senate myth, a horse with John McCain’s body and Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema’s head, one which votes by the light of its own convictions rather than the stifling dictates of left–right ideology. Political reporters like mavericks because wild-card voting patterns make for exciting news cycles, and pundits like them because they keep the dream of a moderate-voter uprising alive. There are attention-based rewards available, in other words, for those who take this path, and Fetterman does already have an iconoclastic manner of dress.

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The existence of another Sinema would be alarming to both progressives and mainstream, party-line Democrats. She nearly derailed Joe Biden’s first term by helping kill the social spending provisions in his “Build Back Better” proposal, and her support for preserving the filibuster precluded the possibility of passing laws that would protect voting rights and abortion access. With a narrow Senate majority that is likely to stay small next year if it doesn’t disappear completely, Dems don’t want to worry about some guy in shorts going rogue every time there’s a high-profile vote. (Sinema’s quasi-defection from the party has been so extreme that another candidate, Democratic Rep. Ruben Gallego, has become the favorite to win the party’s nomination for her seat this year, although Sinema may still run as an independent.)

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Terrifying as this may be to certain parties, it’s unlikely that Fetterman will end up where Sinema has, at least over the issues of immigration (or the Middle East). The order to negotiate with Republicans came from the White House in the first place because Biden hopes a border deal will secure GOP support for a package bill that will also provide military aid to Israel. While border discussions have yet to produce any sort of agreed-upon framework, much less the actual text of potential legislation, the president seems to be prepared to reduce the number of cases in which migrants are granted asylum and limit the number that are granted “parole” (i.e., allowed to live in the U.S.) while their cases are being handled. Fetterman hasn’t said Democrats should go any further than that, and he’s said he won’t support measures from the House Republican caucus’s more severe and restrictive immigration bill, H.R. 2. (The Senate is essentially ignoring the House’s work on the subject and creating its own, separate legislation, which could lead to another set of problems down the line.) On both the border and Israel, his positions match Biden’s.

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What sets the NBA-sized Keystone Stater apart from his Democratic colleagues is simply what top-level communications professionals call “framing.” Connecticut Sen. Chris Murphy, for instance, is leading border negotiations for the Democratic caucus; he said in November that he is “not happy” about his role or “the position Republicans have put us in,” and that he is “just trying to figure out if there’s a pathway to come to a compromise.” Murphy is not materially working toward a different outcome than Fetterman is. But they sound different when they talk about the subject.

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“There’s a lot of the Democratic Party, starting with the White House, that appears to be of the opinion that immigration is not a winning issue for Democrats right now,” says Dara Lind, a senior fellow at the American Immigration Council. “And that their primary commitment on the issue, therefore, needs to be keeping it out of the headlines—that we need to stop people from coming so that we stop getting headlines about how we’re letting too many people into the country.”

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Fetterman will likely end up voting like a loyal Democrat on immigration. But he is creating headlines rather than suppressing them, as is his custom in general. “I think what people are noticing is just his stylistic approach,” says Mark Nicastre, a former spokesman for Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf, citing Fetterman’s political origins as a small-town mayor who earned national attention for his positions on marriage equality and marijuana laws. “When he stakes out a position, he loudly stakes it out. He uses his full communications toolbox, as it were.” (As Nicastre notes, Fetterman stated his current position on Israel with equal force when he was running for Senate in 2022.)

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Fetterman’s comments about taking the Republican position about border encounters seriously are also consistent with his history, Nicastre says: “When he first became lieutenant governor, we talked with him in his office about doing a tour of the state to talk about the potential of legalizing recreational marijuana. We said, ‘You can do the events regionally, do seven or eight of them,’ and he said, ‘I want to do 67,’ which is the number of counties in Pennsylvania. He wants to hear from people and keep open lines of communication.”

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Says Nicastre: “He used the word ‘encounters’ in the December quote in relation to encounters between people who are seeking asylum, or immigrating, and border patrol agents. That struck me—that he is looking to reduce the number of those encounters, which could ultimately become dangerous or be deadly for both immigrants and agents. I think that might be at the center of this, that he wants to make that a safer, more orderly process.” Indeed, during his 2022 Senate race, Fetterman said that he believes “a secure border can be compatible with compassion” and that he supports “comprehensive” immigration reform, which usually refers to legislation that would include increased funding for border security as well as the granting of legal status to undocumented immigrants who are already in the U.S.

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The limited polling that’s been done since December does not depict a Sinema-like backlash against Fetterman’s positions on either Israel or immigration. A Quinnipiac survey of registered Pennsylvania voters released last Wednesday found that nearly 60 percent of Democrats said Fetterman’s support for “tougher immigration policies” did not affect their view of him; 26 percent said it made them view him more favorably, and only 12 percent said it made them view him less favorably. Among independents, “more favorably” beat “less favorably” 40–8.

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Everyone wins, perhaps, except for asylum-seeking migrants, who face a system that may become harder to navigate despite the historic lack of evidence that “tougher” or less humane conditions in the U.S. have a lasting effect on the frequency of attempts to cross the border. (Surges, rather, appear more closely linked to economic and political conditions in migrants’ countries of origin.)

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“I think it’s totally reasonable to say we don’t have order at the U.S.–Mexico border, [and] that is resulting in communities in the United States dealing with migrants and not having the means to support them,” Lind says. “The problem is that the number of people coming to the country is not something that we can actually control by passing policies. We’ve never really invested in orderly processing at the border; we keep going to Congress and asking for temporary spaces to hold people, rather than actually building things that will work the next time there’s an increase in the numbers.” It might turn out, then, that for all the “maverick” headlines, Fetterman is actually participating in the most conventional Washington activity of all: Kicking the can down the road.

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QOSHE - The Left Is Pissed at John Fetterman. That Doesn’t Mean He’s Gone “Full Sinema.” - Ben Mathis-Lilley
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The Left Is Pissed at John Fetterman. That Doesn’t Mean He’s Gone “Full Sinema.”

33 5
18.01.2024
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The progressive left has been displeased with Democratic Pennsylvania Sen. John Fetterman since October, when he emerged as one of the national scene’s most vocal, least conflicted supporters—from either party—of Israel’s war in Gaza. Now he’s taken an equally confrontational position on immigration, joining the ongoing discussions about a potential border security bill in the Senate by admonishing liberals to concede that conditions at the boundary between the U.S. and Mexico constitute a crisis.

“I hope Democrats can understand that it isn’t xenophobic to be concerned about the border,” Fetterman told Politico in early December, describing the monthly number of so-called encounters between undocumented migrants and U.S. enforcement agents as “astonishing” and not “a Fox News kind of statistic.” (That number, for the most recent month available, was 242,000. Annually, encounters have more than doubled from pre-pandemic levels.) A week later he told NBC News, in response to questions about both Israel and immigration, that he’s “not a progressive”—a declaration which came as a surprise to those who remembered him repeatedly describing himself as one while he was running for office in Pennsylvania.

The question this raises—and that NBC News raised, explicitly, in the headline of its report—is whether Fetterman is becoming a “maverick,” that fabled creature of Senate myth, a horse with John McCain’s body and Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema’s head, one which votes by the light of its own convictions rather than the stifling dictates of left–right ideology. Political reporters like mavericks because wild-card voting patterns make for exciting news cycles, and pundits like them because they keep the dream of a moderate-voter uprising alive. There are attention-based rewards available, in other words, for those who take this path, and Fetterman does already have an iconoclastic manner of dress.

Advertisement

The existence of another Sinema would be alarming to both progressives and mainstream, party-line Democrats. She nearly derailed Joe Biden’s first term by helping kill the social spending provisions in his “Build Back Better” proposal, and her support for preserving the filibuster precluded the possibility of passing laws that would protect voting rights and abortion access. With a narrow Senate majority that is likely to stay small next year if it doesn’t........

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