Reflections on a day of self-parody on Capitol Hill.
In an age when absolutely anything can be politicized, perhaps it was inevitable that the attire of John Fetterman would become a cause célèbre in the Republicans’ culture wars. The hulking Democratic senator from Pennsylvania, who suffered a campaign-season stroke during his 2022 race, has since then preferred to wear an unorthodox uniform of baggy gym shorts and hoodies, even in the august halls of the U.S. Senate. After it was revealed this past weekend that Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer had quietly decided he would no longer enforce the chamber’s long-standing but unofficial dress code, thus permitting Fetterman to vote on the floor and even preside over the Senate in his informal getup, numerous hyperventilating op-eds, tweets, and Fox News segments followed. (A sampling: “Fetterman dress code fail begs big question about America’s deep decline”; “Does John Fetterman really want to be a senator?”) Senator Susan Collins, of Maine, threatened to wear a bikini on the Senate floor in protest. Senator Bill Hagerty, of Tennessee, accused Democrats of trying to “transform America.”
Soon enough, Fetterman was selling campaign merchandise making fun of his sanctimonious critics, touting a fifty-dollar “I vote in this hoodie” sweatshirt, among other slouchy apparel. When Ron DeSantis, the Florida governor whose Republican Presidential campaign has been foundering in the polls, attacked Fetterman for “dumbing down” the country, the Pennsylvania senator clapped back: “I dress like he campaigns.” By Wednesday, Fetterman clearly was having too much fun to let the story die. In a tweet seemingly designed for maximum viral impact, Fetterman made an offer: “If those jagoffs in the House stop trying to shut our government down, and fully support Ukraine,” he vowed, “then I will save democracy by wearing a suit on the Senate floor next week.” (A jagoff, according to Dictionary.com, is Pittsburgh slang, used to refer to “a jerk, idiot, or really any kind of irritating or unlikeable person.”)
Putting aside what might be the first known use of the word in an official statement by a U.S. senator, it seems safe to say that Fetterman probably won’t have to put that suit on. But he sure had a point: it’s silly season once again in Washington, as various nihilistic Republicans in the House of Representatives—Fetterman’s jagoffs—careen the country toward a government shutdown when funding runs out at the end of September. Stopping U.S. military aid to Ukraine is one of their central demands, and a twenty-four-billion-dollar supplemental-appropriation request from the Biden Administration to keep the weapons and assistance flowing has now become entangled in the government-shutdown fight.
The feckless House Speaker, Kevin McCarthy, has been trying to thwart them but with such notable ineffectiveness that by midweek the inevitability of a shutdown had become conventional wisdom in Washington, the presumed political costs to Republicans notwithstanding. “We always get the blame,” Representative Mike Simpson of Idaho complained. But there’s no surprise why: it’s Republicans, not Democrats, who have tended to push for government shutdowns ever since Newt Gingrich embraced the tactic in 1995 as a blunt-force instrument to get their way in Washington’s regular spending fights. When, late on Wednesday, McCarthy emerged from a House Republican Conference meeting optimistic about a prospective new plan to win over his hardest-right opponents, a new problem soon emerged: Donald Trump.
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