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The Democratic Governor Whose Message Can’t Be Beat

Pennsylvania’s Josh Shapiro stole one of Republicans’ favorite words, with great success. Now his Democratic peers—including President Biden—are emulating him.

Josh Shapiro during a campaign rally
Mark Makela/Getty Images
Josh Shapiro during a campaign rally in 2022

The hot political news article of the week so far is this Politico piece, which posted Tuesday morning, about some Democrats being in “freakout” mode over Joe Biden. He continues to trail Donald Trump in most swing state polls, his approval-to-disapproval ratings are frightening (38–56, according to FiveThirtyEight), and he’s, well, old, and he will not be getting any younger between now and November.

Short a tragedy, though, he will be the Democratic nominee. The party even took a step Tuesday to ensure it: To make certain that Biden qualifies for the ballot in every state, Democrats are now going to renominate the president by virtual roll call before the mid-August Chicago convention, which happens after some state qualifying deadlines (notably Ohio’s).

That’s the reality. But it’s possible to hold two thoughts in one’s head at the same time, and so we can acknowledge that reality while also looking further down the road. For my money, one of the certain future stars of the Democratic Party is Pennsylvania Governor Josh Shapiro, who won office in 2022 thanks in part to his exhilarating rhetorical theft from the right wing of one of its favorite words, freedom. Shapiro was in Washington earlier this month to give a speech, and I had a chance to sit down with him.

I first noticed Shapiro when, as the Keystone State’s attorney general, he stood up against Trump’s repeated legal attempts to challenge the Pennsylvania results (“I went 43 and 0,” he told me). But he really caught my eye the weekend before the 2022 election, when he gave a speech that went massively viral because of this passage, which he delivered after noting that his GOP opponent loved to talk about freedom:

It’s not freedom to tell women what they’re allowed to do with their bodies. That’s not freedom. It’s not freedom to tell our children what books they’re allowed to read. It’s not freedom when he gets to decide who you’re allowed to marry. I say love is love! It’s not freedom to say you can work a forty-hour workweek, but you can’t be a member of a union. That’s not freedom. And it sure as hell isn’t freedom to say you can go vote, but he gets to pick the winner. That’s not freedom. That’s not freedom.

But you know what? You know what we’re for? We’re for real freedom. And lemme tell you what, lemme tell you what real freedom is. Real freedom is when you see that young child in North Philly and you see the potential in her, so you invest in her public school. That’s real freedom. That’s real freedom. Real freedom comes when we invest in that young child’s neighborhood to make sure it’s safe so she gets to her eighteenth birthday. That’s real freedom.

The first of those two paragraphs is very good. But it’s the second that is potentially revolutionary. The right has owned the economic concept of freedom at least since the 1962 publication of Milton Friedman’s Capitalism and Freedom, convincing millions of Americans that freedom means letting the free market work its magic. Across Pennsylvania, as across America, that “magic” has meant the flight of well-paying jobs and the collapse of social stability in so many towns. Shapiro would redefine freedom so that human beings, not abstract markets, come first.

It just came to him one day, he told me; he has not read volumes of economic theory. He was chatting with his wife one morning before a day of campaigning, and she complained about Republican candidates carrying on about freedom. “And she goes, ‘It’s ridiculous, they’re not for freedom, and you need to say something about that,’” Shapiro recalled. And that night, at a stop in Erie, he started talking about his conception of real freedom.

That night, he limited the term to what he calls its “negative” use—that is, of the freedoms the right is trying to take away, like reproductive freedom. But the more he thought about it, the more he sought to define freedom in a more “positive” sense—freedoms that government can create for people. “I talked about freedom not in the traditional sense of choice and voting rights, but the freedom to breathe clean air. The freedom to walk down the street and not get shot. The freedom to get a quality constitutional education.”

He’s tried to put this into practice as governor in a variety of ways, he told me. Increased education funding, increased funding for teacher training. Universal free breakfast for schoolchildren for the first time in the state’s history. More funding for vo-tech education.

Perhaps most notably, he pointed to an order he issued on his first day in office that removed the requirement for a college degree from 92 percent of state government jobs. “That’s an example of freedom, right? Because we’re now no longer going to limit people because of an arbitrary degree requirement,” Shapiro said. “We want people to have the freedom and chart their own course.”

As governor, Shapiro is probably best known for his response to the collapse last June of a bridge on Interstate 95 about eight miles north of downtown Philadelphia. A tanker truck carrying gasoline rolled over and exploded, causing the collapse of the northbound lanes and damage to the southbound lanes, closing one of the country’s busiest highways in both directions for about nine miles.

Everyone was predicting that it would be months before the bridge would be traversable again. It was reopened in an astonishing 12 days.

Shapiro recalled being told of the event around 7 a.m. on a Sunday morning. “I was hoping the word ‘collapse’ was some term of art that didn’t actually mean collapsed,” he recalled. He said that it was on a helicopter tour that he and his people got the idea that maybe a temporary bridge could be put up fairly quickly by simply piling tons of “aggregate” (recycled glass) on the roadway below the bridge and setting a temporary span on top of it. Even that, by rights, might have taken longer but for the expectations Shapiro set. “There were a couple moments where the engineers and others said, ‘Look, give us a couple weeks and we’ll come back to you with our plan,’” he recalled. “And I would say, ‘Great, you have an hour.’” A rebuilding plan was in place, he told me, by the end of the first day.

And that’s how you get an approval rating of 59 percent in a sharply divided state. Other recent polls have shown him in the mid-50s.

He’s taken some hits, to be sure. A top aide resigned last year amid charges that he sexually harassed a female aide. So the question arose as to what Shapiro knew and when he knew it. Shapiro has defended his track record on fighting sexual abuse, including the release of a report on abuse by Catholic clergy, but he has sidestepped questions about the aide. As a candidate, he had supported school choice, a rare and strange position for a Democrat. As governor, he vetoed a school choice scholarship program, and conservatives went ballistic on him. Right now, he’s haggling with legislators—Democrats control the lower House, while Republicans have the state Senate—over the budget, which is due June 30. Shapiro seeks billions for education, transit, and industrial and high-tech infrastructure projects. When we spoke, he said Republican legislators weren’t yet putting up a huge fight, but we won’t really get those answers until June.

But as far as the wider world is concerned, Shapiro’s biggest test will come in November. Can he use the vast machinery at a governor’s disposal to help push Biden across the line in a state he absolutely has to win? Biden trails Trump by two points in Pennsylvania (within the margin of error); the polls are close, but according to FiveThirtyEight, Trump led in 10 of the most recent 12 polls there.

Shapiro argues that “President Biden has some extraordinary accomplishments that are going to quite literally help us rebuild the infrastructure of this nation. We’re gonna do more when it comes to addressing climate change than any generation before us. He’s stabilized the world order as much as the world order can be stabilized. He’s leading with grace and honor. And he’s someone who is just an honorable, decent man.” He insisted that Biden doesn’t need his advice and said: “I can tell you what I’ll be doing as his advocate in Pennsylvania and across the country, which is to tell his story—he’s got a story of accomplishment—and aggressively prosecute the case against Donald Trump.”

Shapiro is surely thinking about not only this presidential election but future ones (assuming they happen). It’ll burnish his star considerably if he helps deliver his state to Biden. Then of course he’ll need to win reelection in 2026.

But his rhetoric about freedom caught a lot of people’s ears. Biden and other Democrats have taken up the negative freedom part of Shapiro’s call, about Republicans trying to take away people’s freedoms. But the positive part is more interesting, because it makes an affirmative case for public-sector intervention while stealing one of conservatives’ favorite words from them (and it doesn’t hurt that it’s a word Americans are taught to cherish from the time they can speak). It’s as solid a foundation for government action on behalf of working people as I’ve heard in my adult lifetime. If he delivers on that rhetoric, he’ll have a strong case to make, if and when his time comes.

This article has been updated.