Politics

Fetterman’s break from the left excites Republicans

Republicans once slammed John Fetterman as a “radical socialist” who was “too dangerous” to get elected.

These days, they seem to like him just fine.

Now that Fetterman is touting ironclad support for Israel and calling for stricter border policies, his Senate colleagues across the aisle describe him as “independent” and “sticking to his guns.” Interviews with nearly a dozen GOP senators revealed a growing warmth toward Fetterman that goes beyond delight at seeing how much his new identity has irked progressives.

It seems Republicans are now more open to partnering with Fetterman on policy because of his recent party-bucking.

“It certainly makes it more appealing to want to work with him on things if you see this independent streak,” Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.) said of Fetterman’s recent remarks.

No grand partnerships have sprung up on legislation just yet. But the mere fact that Republicans view him in those terms is a statement on Fetterman’s political evolution.

Sen. Tommy Tuberville (R-Ala.), who frustrated many in his own party with his months-long blockade of military promotions, lauded Fetterman as someone who “speaks his own mind” and “doesn’t follow the party line.” Tuberville added that “it’s easier to talk, carry on a conversation,” with a political opponent who’s “open-minded.”

It’s unclear whether Fetterman can, or even wants to, leverage his new niche as a Democrat who Republicans can tolerate — possibly even like — into a productive role as a Senate dealmaker. It’s a disappearing typecast: Sens. Mitt Romney‘s (R-Utah) and Joe Manchin‘s (D-W.Va.) imminent retirements are hollowing out the chamber’s small but influential bloc of aisle-crossing negotiators, and that void could grow if Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (I-Ariz.) also passes on reelection.

But Fetterman’s voting record remains staunchly in line with the rest of his party. In a brief interview for this story, the first-term senator didn’t express explicit interest in taking on more partnerships with the GOP — but he didn’t rule it out, either. Fetterman even argued that Republicans who have personally praised his recent remarks on the border and Israel shouldn’t be so shocked.

“Outside of Philadelphia, they have these gigantic billboards, where it was like, ‘Fetterman = open border’ … it just turns out that it’s all bullshit,” Fetterman said in an interview, referring to Republicans’ 2022 campaign attacks on him. “And I would have thought that professionals would have realized that most of it is all bullshit.”

Just over a year ago, Senate Republicans were working hard to brand Fetterman as a younger version of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) — an actual democratic socialist — who was unfit for office. Over the past three months, however, Fetterman showed a side of his ideology that seemed to genuinely startle his GOP colleagues.

Not only did he vocally defend Israel in its war against Hamas, as Sanders and other liberal leaders suggested curbs on U.S. aid, Fetterman defended bipartisan talks on stricter border policies that slow the flow of migrants into the U.S. And he bucked his own leadership by calling for the expulsion of a fellow Democrat, indicted New Jersey Sen. Bob Menendez.

“He’s not in lockstep with the progressives in his party … I don’t know if he’s had an epiphany or exactly what’s going on, but [it’s] obviously gotten a lot of people’s attention,” said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas).

In fact, Fetterman has repeatedly stressed he is not a progressive. Yet core elements of his political persona remain very much in line with the left: He wants to abolish the filibuster; he wants universal health care, though he’s not embraced Sanders’ flagship “Medicare for all” slogan; he still dons hoodies in the staid Senate, reveling in the establishment’s alarm at his casual garb.

On the campaign trail, Fetterman even quipped that he might let down centrist-leaning “Joe Manchin Democrats,” nudging members of his party to “vote like Democrats.” When it comes to votes during his first year in office, he’s stayed true to that watchword — rarely straying from the party line.

Taking the man as a whole, many Senate Republicans are ready to take a new look at Fetterman.

“I know from politics, my own race, that not everything people say about you is actually true,” said Sen. J.D. Vance (R-Ohio), who added that Fetterman has said some “smart” things over the past few months, particularly about the border. The two first-term senators have worked together on rail safety legislation that Vance still hopes will pass this year.

Fetterman has also cosponsored several agriculture-focused bills alongside Sen. Mike Braun (R-Ind.), who credited the Pennsylvanian for “bucking Biden and everybody else” on immigration. The administration has also been open to bipartisan border talks.

Even off the Hill, Fetterman has won praise from Republicans, including two current GOP Senate candidates. Former Rep. Peter Meijer (R-Mich.), who’s seeking a comeback in the upper chamber, has said he likes Fetterman. Dave McCormick, who’s hoping to take on Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.) next fall, said he’s been “surprised” by Fetterman and that he thinks the Democrat has “moral clarity” on the border and Israel.

Still, Fetterman’s new GOP fans are also curbing their enthusiasm for him. Cramer argued that Fetterman leans liberal on most issues, saying that his “views are largely left, in some cases very left.” Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.) said he appreciated Fetterman “sticking to his guns” on the border and Israel but pushed back on any suggestion that the Democrat is on an all-out independent streak.

Kennedy also indicated that Republicans shouldn’t let Fetterman’s metamorphosis matter too much.

“Just because somebody agrees or disagrees with you doesn’t mean you ought to like or dislike them,” he said. “You should respect differences of opinion.”

The Pennsylvania Democrat is straying from liberal orthodoxy on the border and Israel, giving GOP colleagues hope that he might keep surprising them.  

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