Thursday, September 21, 2023

Democrats are starting to feel comfortable with online clowning with Republicans

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Shreya Christina
Shreya has been with for 3 years, writing copy for client websites, blog posts, EDMs and other mediums to engage readers and encourage action. By collaborating with clients, our SEO manager and the wider team, Shreya seeks to understand an audience before creating memorable, persuasive copy.

There are only a few weeks left until the midterms and President Joe Biden kicks off on Twitter.

Earlier this week, Biden announced that the federal government would cancel up to $20,000 in federal student loans for millions of borrowers. While the Internet’s response to the news was typical, the White House’s response to that response was not.

On Thursday, the official White House Twitter account called out Republican lawmakers who have criticized the government’s student loan waiver plan in recent days. In a series of tweetsThe White House called Republicans such as Representatives Marjorie Taylor Greene (GA) and Matt Gaetz (FL) for taking out business loans during the pandemic that were later forgiven by the federal government — such as the student loans that infuriated them.

While the merits of that comparison are up for debate, it’s still an unusual strategy for a Democratic Party that has seemingly tried to stick to the Obama-era “when they go low, we go high” mantra. Instead of meeting Republicans face-to-face in their online culture war in recent years, Democrats have focused on policy gains rather than partisan screaming contests.

But even as Biden has won major political victories over historic climate and semiconductor spending, his approval rating has wavered. With Congress fast approaching recess and interim deadlines, there isn’t much time left for Biden to let his administration’s policies speak for themselves. And as Republicans drown out Biden’s successes online, the White House has gotten louder, using a new Democratic online playbook that is being tested in key state elections this year.

So far this script seems to be working. In states like Pennsylvania and Ohio, Democrats have chosen to ridicule their widely unpopular Republican opponents in Twitter quips and social videos — hitting double digits in polls and raking in millions of dollars in donations.

Most notably, John Fetterman’s campaign in Pennsylvania raised more than $500,000 in just a few days after he circulated a series of tweets and videos featuring his Trump-backed opponent Dr. Fooled Mehmet Oz for using the word “crudités” to describe a vegetarian tray in an official campaign video. Fetterman’s communications director, Joe Calvello, spoke lightly to me earlier this month about the candidate’s online attacks on Oz, saying, “We will continue to meet voters wherever they are and have a lot of fun doing it.”

Fetterman’s team has also criticized Oz for being out of touch with what Pennsylvania voters want, pointing to the Republican’s multiple homes and ties to New Jersey. In a viral moment earlier this summer, the campaign caught on Jersey Shore star Nicole Polizzi, better known as “Snooki”, to berate Oz about his alleged stay in Jersey.

Ohio Democratic Rep. Tim Ryan’s Senate Bid Against Hillbilly Elegy author and Peter Thiel contributor JD Vance has also adopted this troll-adjacent strategy. In a Twitter video earlier this month, a Ryan campaigner, dressed in a Hawaiian shirt and wraparound sunglasses, paraded through the Ohio State Fair with a surfboard in search of Vance, drawing attention to Vance’s years in California.

“Hope this helps you feel a little less ‘out of place’ here in Ohio, JD!” read the message.

While Biden himself has often been the subject of memes related to his “bromance” with former President Barack Obama and his preoccupation with aviators and ice cream, the memes have never portrayed him as the champion of his own political narrative. Until recently, Biden was an “average Joe” at best and Obama’s bumbling sidekick at worst who provided comedic relief.

Biden had the chance to rename it this summer with “Dark Brandon,” adopting the GOP’s slogan “Let’s go Brandon.” Lefty posters created memes of Biden in a style reminiscent of online image boards. Instead of Biden licking an ice cream cone, he shoots lasers from his eyes, eliminating “malarkey” as he pushes through administrative priorities like climate spending, Jack!

Sure, the meme is cringe. I’d say all politics is cringe. But the meme has revived extreme online voters familiar with the last six years of irony-poisoned political history. For the less online, Biden’s team seems to have embraced each other the spirit of Brandon (and Fetterman and Ryan) as part of their online messaging.

Elections aren’t decided on likes and retweets, and it’s hard to say how the new strategy will translate into actual votes. Biden’s rebounding approval rating is more likely a result of passing his agenda. But this new strategy hasn’t done much harm to the Democratic Party so far — and we may have to wait for the interim results to come in to know exactly what effect the online gaffe will have on their political fortunes.

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