As flip-flops go, Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. John Fetterman’s primetime switch on fracking policy was one of the less artful ones.
He ran as a committed left-winger in the Democratic primary for U.S. Senate in 2016, including opposing the use of fracking to get at otherwise unrecoverable oil supplies but reversed course during his debate last week with GOP opponent Mehmet Oz.
He made the switch during the campaign’s only debate, and whether because of his stroke or other reasons, he botched the U-turn in spectacular fashion.
“Uh, I do support fracking, and, I don’t — I don’t — I support fracking, and I stand, and I do support fracking,” Mr. Fetterman said.
The stumble comes in perhaps the most critical election contest of the year, with many analysts expecting Pennsylvania’s Senate race to be the bellwether. If Mr. Oz can hold the seat, which is being vacated by a retiring Republican, the GOP has a good shot at flipping control of the chamber.
Mr. Fetterman has seen a comfortable lead slip away, which is one explanation for why he thought he had to flip-flop.
He figures the voters who oppose fracking in a meaningful way are already in his camp. He was hoping to recapture other voters who have drifted away from Mr. Fetterman and toward Mr. Oz in recent months.
“For Fetterman, it is an issue that has particular relevance among a group he is trying to make inroads in, working-class Pennsylvania, often white working-class, that might have jobs related directly to fracking or indirectly,” said Christopher P. Borick, director of the Muhlenberg College Institute of Public Opinion.
Whether it works or whether the flip-flop becomes the bigger story is anyone’s guess.
“Does it matter to be a flip-flopper? I don’t know,” said Michael O’Connell, a Pittsburgh-based GOP strategist. “We are in a new world here where a lot of what we were quite confident that we thought we knew doesn’t always apply.”
Mr. O’Connell said it made sense for Mr. Fetterman to offer up a smokescreen on the fracking issue.
The botched execution, however, not only fueled the flip-flop talk but also ignited questions about the near-fatal stroke Mr. Fetterman suffered in May.
In the wake of the debate, The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette ran a story with medical experts weighing in, saying they thought Mr. Fetterman did rather well for someone less than six months after a stroke.
But those nuances likely didn’t translate to average voters, who are instead wavering between sympathy for the candidate and worry that he’s not up to the job of a senator.
Mr. Fetterman addressed his debate performance at a rally and concert with singer Dave Matthews on Wednesday.
He said it “wasn’t exactly easy” for him at the debate, but characterized his perseverance as historic. And he said whatever his auditory stumbles, he’s got the right positions.
“I may not get every word the right way, but I will always do the right thing in Washington, D.C.,” he said.
His campaign, meanwhile, sought to clear up the confusion about his response on fracking, saying Mr. Fetterman has “not supported a fracking moratorium or ban since Pennsylvania instituted stronger environmental rules to protect public health.”
“Throughout his career, John has stood up to politicians to fight for U.S. Steel’s right to build fracking wells,” Fetterman spokesman Joe Calvello said in a statement. “John believes that we have to preserve the union way of life for the thousands of workers currently employed or supported by the natural gas industry in Pennsylvania and the communities where they live.”
Mr. Calvello also looked to turn the tables. He highlighted a “Dr. Oz’s First-Class Flip-Flop on Fracking” story from The Huffington Post that detailed how Mr. Oz in an online post in 2014 said the state of New York should pump the brakes on fracking until a state health study is complete. Reports out of Pennsylvania about air and water contamination, possibly from fracking, give him pause, Mr. Oz said.
Mr. Fetterman, however, had rock-solid opposition to fracking not long ago.
“I’m not pro-fracking and have stated that if we did things right in this state, we wouldn’t have fracking,” Mr. Fetterman wrote in a Reddit post in 2016. “The industry is a stain on our state and natural resources.”
History shows there is no hard and fast rule as to whether flip-flopping will work. What is almost universally accepted is flip-flopping would not happen if it were automatic political suicide.
Many politicians have flipped on abortion, including the Republican Party’s last two presidential nominees, Donald Trump and Mitt Romney.
And their presidential pick before that in 2008, Sen. John McCain of Arizona, was a fierce backer of leniency toward illegal immigrants before becoming a border hawk in his 2008 campaign to win the GOP presidential nod.
Former Sen. John Kerry, the 2004 Democratic presidential nominee, will forever be remembered as the ultimate flip-flopper after responding to a question about his vote against an $87 billion supplemental appropriation for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“I actually did vote for the $87 billion before I voted against it,” Mr. Kerry said at the campaign stop in West Virginia.
The comment opened up Mr. Kerry to ridicule, including from then-Vice President Dick Cheney who said: “John Kerry will say and do anything in order to get elected.”
On the campaign trail that year, Mr. Cheney would be serenaded by chants of “Flip-flop! Flip-flop” whenever he brought up Mr. Kerry’s “ridiculous explanation.”
Since then, accusations of flip-flopping have become so common that people dressed up in dolphin customs with flippers have appeared at campaign rallies over the years and some campaigns have distributed flip-flop footwear as a way to knock their waffling rivals.
More recently, Democrats have found themselves trying to calibrate their responses to past statements that seemed to support defunding the police.
CNN recently reported Democrat Mandela Barnes liked a tweet from 2018 that used the “#AbolishICE” hashtag and likened the agency to “modern-day slave catchers.” His Twitter account also gave the thumbs up to tweets demanding abolishing ICE in July 2018 and a couple of more times that June.
He also liked a tweet that read: “Imagine a world without ICE.”
Mr. Barnes, however, has run in the opposite direction against Republican incumbent Sen. Ron Johnson, who has dinged the Democrat for signaling support for abolishing ICE and redirecting money away from police.
“Now they are claiming I want to defund the police and abolish ICE,” Mr. Barnes says in a “Truth” television ad he aired this month. “That is a lie. I will make sure our police have the resources and training they need to keep our communities safe.”
“He has certainly said things that have come back to haunt him,” said Charles Franklin, director of the Marquette Law School Poll.