Democrats are getting comfortable clowning on Republicans online

There’s only a few weeks until the midterms, and President Joe Biden is starting beef on Twitter.

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

On Thursday, the White House’s official Twitter account called out Republican lawmakers who spent the last few days criticizing the administration’s student loan forgiveness plan. In a series of tweets, the White House name-dropped Republicans like Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene (GA) and Matt Gaetz (FL) for taking out business loans during the pandemic that were later forgiven by the federal government — like the student loans that enraged 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 hold itself to the Obama-era “when they go low, we go high” mantra. Instead of meeting Republicans face-to-face in their online culture war over the last few years, Democrats have focused on policy wins, rather than partisan shouting matches.

But even as Biden has won major political victories over historic climate and semiconductor spending, his approval rating has staggered. With Congress out for recess and midterms quickly approaching, there isn’t a lot of 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, leveraging a new Democratic online playbook that’s being tested in important statewide elections this year.

So far, this playbook appears to be working. In states like Pennsylvania and Ohio, Democrats have chosen to clown on their widely unpopular Republican opponents in Twitter quips and social videos — and they’re securing double-digit leads in polls and raking in millions of dollars in donations because of it.

Most notably, John Fetterman’s Senate campaign in Pennsylvania raised more than $500,000 in only a few days after running a series of tweets and videos making fun of his Trump-endorsed opponent Dr. Mehmet Oz for using the word “crudités” to describe a veggie tray in an official campaign video. Speaking to me earlier this month, Joe Calvello, Fetterman’s communications director, made light of the candidate’s online attacks against Oz, saying, “We will continue to meet voters wherever they are at and have a whole lot of fun doing it.”

Fetterman’s team has also criticized Oz as being out of touch with what Pennsylvania voters want, pointing out the Republican’s multiple homes and ties to New Jersey. In one viral moment earlier this summer, the campaign enlisted Jersey Shore star Nicole Polizzi, better known as “Snooki,” to scold Oz over his alleged Jersey residency.

Ohio Democratic Rep. Tim Ryan’s Senate bid against Hillbilly Elegy author and Peter Thiel associate J.D. Vance has also taken on this troll-adjacent strategy. In a Twitter video earlier this month, a Ryan campaign staffer donning 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 living in California.

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

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 never cast him as the champion of his own political story. Until recently, Biden was an “average Joe” at best and, at worst, Obama’s bumbling sidekick providing comedic relief.

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

Sure, the meme is cringe. I’d argue that all politics is cringe. But the meme has reenergized extremely online voters who are familiar with the last six years of irony-poisoned political history. For the less online, Biden’s team has seemingly embraced 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 his agenda passing. But this new strategy hasn’t caused the Democratic Party much harm as of yet —and we may have to wait until midterm results roll in to know precisely what effect the online bluster will have on their political fortunes.

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