I keep hearing again and again that 2016 is "the year of the outsider" in American politics. My reaction to that is...really? The truth is that, in the presidential race -- if GOP party elites succeed in their quest to deny Donald Trump a first-ballot nomination -- voters may find themselves picking between a couple of insiders in November.
Ask John Fetterman, the Harvard-trained mayor of a once-comatose western Pennsylvania steel town who looks like a biker-bar bouncer, whether this is the year of the outsider. Because if that were the case, he'd be well on his way to becoming a U.S. Senator from Pennsylvania.
But he's not.
Good politics is good storytelling, and Fetterman has a hell of a story to tell about himself. It starts with a great character, a guy who stands 6-8 and weighs over 300 pounds, campaigning in a black workshirt and boots -- not a blow-dried politician because there are no hairs to dry. He didn't plan on becoming a politician, but when he showed up in Braddock, an iconic mill town near Pittsburgh that was shrinking into oblivion, to teach underprivileged children, he knew he wanted to save it. His experiences as mayor of Braddock gave him unorthodox ideas on how to solve crime and end the so-called "war on drugs," while his wife -- Gisele, who was born in Brazil and came to the U.S. undocumented -- inspired him to push for common-sense immigration policies.
The only people I know who aren't interested in Fetterman's story are Democratic Party elites -- the labor unions and various interest groups that make endorsements, and the money people who do their money thing that pays for political ads that reach the 90 percent of "normals" -- i.e., people who don't obsess over the politics the way that we do. The unusually telegenic Fetterman has gotten a lot of free media, which has helped him raise some small donations, which has paid for some creative ads -- just enough, basically, to get him to about 8 percent in the polls. Only a miracle could bring him victory on Tuesday against two humdrum Democratic establishment candidates (Google them, if you must.)
This is where Bernie Sanders, the Vermont senator who jolted the 2016 race with his brewed-in-Burlington blend of democratic socialism, comes in. Because that's one more thing that's unique about John Fetterman -- unlike almost all of Pennsylvania's Democratic go-along-get-along insider cronies, the Braddock mayor has endorsed Sanders for president. Why wouldn't he? Fetterman's promises to shake up Washington and to end big-money politics and the useless "war on drugs" are EXACTLY what Sanders is talking about when he calls for a "political revolution."
You won't believe what happened next, as reported late week at Slate by Michelle Goldberg:
Given the money and political power stacked against him, Fetterman says he needs Sanders' help to have any chance next Tuesday, the same day as the Pennsylvania presidential primary. So far, however, it has not been forthcoming. There's been no endorsement, no fundraising support, no joint appearances. Fetterman's campaign finds this confounding. On the ground, he says, there's enormous overlap between his supporters and the Sanders grassroots. ("The crowd at the Fishtown brewpub is young, liberal, urban. They rave about Sanders—and Fetterman," says a recent Philadelphia Inquirer story.) In a three-way race, he believes, Sanders' backing could be decisive; Fetterman estimates that he'll win if he gets 60 or 70 percent of Sanders' voters.
Right now, that seems unlikely; a poll from early April had him at 9 percent of the vote, with 66 percent saying they haven't recently seen, read, or heard anything about him, and 63 percent saying they didn't know what his ideology was. The only ray of hope: When people had heard about him, what they heard made them like him more. Lacking the resources to get on the airwaves, he's doing as much retail campaigning as he can, including going to Sanders rallies to talk to voters one on one. (The Sanders campaign didn't respond to a request for comment.)
"To me, Pennsylvania represents the perfectly framed battle within the party war of 2016," Fetterman tells me. "Untold millions in outside money and establishment endorsements versus the will of Sanders' grassroots supporters who could, quite literally, pick the next nominee in this state. That nominee, badly outspent, represents a decimated steel town on society's economic fringe."
Sanders often says that his audacious agenda depends on a political revolution, one that would sweep progressives into office behind him. So far, however, he's done notably little to make that happen. It's not just his failure to support Fetterman; he hasn't gotten involved in any Senate races. He made his first congressional endorsements just last week, sending out fundraising emails for three female House candidates: Zephyr Teachout of New York, Pramila Jayapal of Washington, and Lucy Flores of Nevada.
Think about it. Although Sanders is probably also going to lose Pennsylvania on Tuesday, he's also on track -- if you believe the polls -- to get anywhere from 40-45 percent of the statewide Democratic vote. Imagine if Sanders and Fetterman had toured the Keystone State as "a ticket," if it had been Fetterman popping up on stage after Susan Sarandon or Rosario Dawson to introduce the Vermont senator. If Fetterman could just tap into most of that 40-45 percent of the Democratic primary vote...he wins.
I spent a big chunk of last year studying Sanders's life story, and so his actions up until now don't really surprise me. His life has been devoted to two things: Promoting his "political revolution" to raise up the American working class, and promoting himself, Bernie Sanders, as the avatar of that revolution. It would be easy to call that selfish -- except that it's a strategy that's brought remarkable results. The notion of putting Sanders in the White House has electrified a generation of young voters around issues such as income inequality and the corrupting influence of big money in our policy. He has an unmatched ability to raise money from regular people -- not special interests -- and has developed an email list that is the envy of American politics.
But if Sanders is truly serious about a political revolution in the United States, the time for him to shift gears is...yesterday, frankly. Even though it's probably too late to help him get elected, Sanders would be wise to use his campaign stops in Pennsylvania on Monday to finally endorse Fetterman, and to begin doing more to use his $40-million-a-month money machine to raise money for progressive outsider candidates, not just for Congress but for the less glamorous posts in the state legislature or the county commission or even the local school board.