Dog whistles and scare tactics in Pennsylvania senate race

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F. Scott Fitzgerald once famously observed that the truest test of a first-rate intelligence “is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”

But the sage of the Jazz Age never had to run for office. And, more specifically, he didn’t have to run in Pennsylvania’s nationally watched U.S. Senate race, where it barely seems possible to hold a single idea in mind for longer than it takes to run a 30-second attack ad.

Republican candidate Mehmet Oz, the Trump-endorsed celebrity physician, has managed to close a double-digit polling gap with Democratic Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, a reform advocate who chairs the state Pardons Board, with a series of commercials that prey on voters’ worst impulses with barely concealed dog whistles.

The strategy is hardly original. Nor is it particularly unique.

In 1988, then Vice President George W. Bush effectively torpedoed Democrat Michael Dukakis’ White House hopes in the blatantly racist “Willie Horton” ad detailing a woman’s rape at the hands of a Black convicted murderer free on a “weekend pass.”

A survey of more than 300 campaign ads in congressional and governor’s races by the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia found candidates, predominantly Republicans, leaning heavily on ads that try to scare the voters by painting Democrats as being soft on crime.

In Wisconsin, for instance, incumbent Republican Sen. Ron Johnson has gained in the polls against Democratic Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes by slamming him for rising crime in cities like Milwaukee, where homicides are up by 40 percent over the year before, according to New York Magazine’s Intelligencer.

In Pennsylvania, Oz has criticized Fetterman for hiring brothers Lee and Dennis Horton, both of whom are Black, after they were granted clemency in connection with a 1993 robbery and shooting in which they steadfastly maintained their innocence.

You would think that the Horton brothers are the kind of story that Republicans would want to champion. They are two men who transcended their circumstances to find success. Instead, they’ve become avatars of the dystopian future that “Far-Left Fetterman,” as one ad describes him, would usher into existence if he wins in November.

Now it’s true that certain types of crime are increasing: Total violent crimes continue to rise even as homicides have dropped, Axios reported last month, citing an annual midyear survey by the Major Cities Chiefs Association. And Philadelphia, the state’s largest city, continues to be in the throes of a gun violence epidemic, as the Pennsylvania Capital-Star reported earlier this week.

But a discussion about the incredibly nuanced and complex approaches required to prevent crime and make our communities safer can’t be adequately tackled in a 30-second advertisement.

As the Capital-Star’s Marley Parish reported earlier this month, Oz has been notably short on specifics on what he’d do about crime if elected, leaning instead on endorsements from law enforcement groups who historically back Republicans anyway.

Fetterman, who says he believes in the power of second chances, says he’d prioritize oversight, accountability, and violence prevention if he wins in November.

“Dr. Oz lies about my record on crime,” Fetterman said while campaigning in Philadelphia, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer reported. “Two of the things that I was most proud of in my career, stopping the gun violence as a mayor and fighting for the innocent and other individuals for a second chance. That is my record on crime. And that’s my commitment to fight for you in Philadelphia.”

Those are great bromides. But like most of this meme-centered campaign, it doesn’t advance the conversation. Nor does it indicate what Fettterman might do if he helps Democrats capture the majority.

Which brings us back to that Fitzgerald aphorism.

It was only a few years ago that Pennsylvania Republicans, fired by both fiscal conservatism and the evangelical belief in the power of forgiveness, teamed with Democrats to rebalance a prison system that put punishment ahead of rehabilitation.

A bipartisan clean slate law — a variation of which was ironically also supported by former President Donald Trump — has given more than 1.2 million Pennsylvanians a fresh start, according to Wolf administration data.

But in post-pandemic America, the pendulum has swung in the other direction, away from reform, justice and mercy at a time when we need more of all of it.

Recently released data, reported by the Capital-Star, has laid bare deep sentencing and prosecutorial disparities that have unfairly targeted Black and brown Pennsylvanians. It’s been piled on top of all the other disparities in class, race and economics the pandemic put before our collective eyes.

Fetterman and Oz will meet Oct. 25 for their lone debate of the fall campaign. Here’s hoping voters get the discussion to which they’re entitled. Oz needs to make clear what he’d do differently. Fetterman’s record deserves a thorough vetting.

Because when it comes to criminal justice reform and the other big issues of this campaign, voters deserve a lot better than they’ve been getting so far.

Copyright 2022 John L. Micek, distributed exclusively by Cagle Cartoons newspaper syndicate.

An award-winning political journalist, John L. Micek is Editor-in-Chief of The Pennsylvania Capital-Star in Harrisburg, Pa. Email him at jmic[email protected] and follow him on Twitter @ByJohnLMicek.