John Fetterman never wanted to have this debate at all. Once it became impossible to avoid it, his campaign staff did their best to lower expectations. Even if you bought that, though, it is hard to say that this was anything but a tough night for the lieutenant governor and a largely positive one for Dr. Mehmet Oz.
Fetterman’s difficulty in understanding and speaking is, as he put it, the “elephant in the room.” It was impossible to forget, and hard to tell which awkward pauses were processing delays and which were him trying to come up with an answer to a hard question. Oz was, as expected of a man with as much television experience as he, far more fluid and competent.
Oz focused, as many of his recent TV commercials do, on moderation. Hardly a question went by without him characterizing Fetterman’s position as “extreme” or “radical” while speaking of the need for non-politicians like him to go to Washington and find consensus. It’s a good position for Pennsylvania, and a good one for anyone hoping to take the place of our conservative but not extremist senator, Pat Toomey.
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Fetterman gave Oz many opportunities to make the point. On the topic of abortion, Oz gave a pro-life position with the usual exceptions for abortions in the case of rape, incest, and to save the life of the baby’s mother. But he also repeatedly rejected the idea that Congress should pass such a law, saying that the decision belongs to the states.
In contrast, Fetterman declined to state any abortion he did not think should be legal and tax supported, merely saying “Roe v. Wade” when asked where the line should be drawn (that case did not draw a line as to what states can ban, only said that earlier term abortions may not be banned — it imposed no upper limits). He even said the government should pay for women to travel to other states to abort their babies.
Oz also focused on energy, and the potential of fracking in the Commonwealth to unleash jobs, wealth, and prosperity. He fairly easily sidestepped a question about his 2014 statement that it should not be allowed until it was proven safe. Fetterman, on the other hand, when confronted with an even more recent statement of his own that was even more categorically against fracking, simply said that he was always in favor of it. The moderators pressed him — twice — to clarify how he could have always been for it while being clearly against it in 2018, and he just refused to budge.
Fetterman also refused to budge on the issue of his medical records, which he again refused to release. Maybe his speech problem made this look worse than it was, but even allowing for that, he gave no good explanation about why he would continue to hide the facts from the voters.
Oz’s advantage tonight was not just that he could string together coherent sentences, but that he also had coherent thoughts. Saving money on “waste, fraud, and abuse” is a budgetary cliché, but it’s a better answer than just saying he would fully fund things without saying where those funds would come from.
The 60-second answer format was kinder to Oz than Fetterman, but it did neither a great deal of good when explaining complex responses. On education costs, Oz mentioned the bloat of college deans and administrators as driving up the costs and spoke of pushing colleges to do more remote learning as another way to contain costs. Fetterman, perhaps not reading Oz’s plan on the closed caption screen, stubbornly insisted that his opponent offered no concrete plans … while refusing to offer any himself.
On Social Security and Medicare, Oz pledged repeatedly to fund them and to never change them except to make sure that they stay funded. He demanded that Fetterman stop lying about him as he has in recent ads that imply Oz would cut these programs. The Republican said that he has never said he would cut them and that he would absolutely not do so. Fetterman just kept repeating the claim, without evidence. Most bizarrely, he shouted in the middle of Oz’s closing statement “you want to cut social security!” as though the calumny had not been repeated enough.
Oz’s advantage tonight was not just that he could string together coherent sentences, but that he also had coherent thoughts. Saving money on “waste, fraud, and abuse” is a budgetary cliché, but it’s a better answer than just saying he would fully fund things without saying where those funds would come from. And Oz’s swipes at Fetterman’s radicalism were all based on things Fetterman has actually done or said, not warmed-over “Mediscare” ads from the 90s.
Fetterman’s physical condition made the debate hard to watch, and might engender some sympathy. But the Democrat’s best hope must be that it distracts from the lack of substance in his answers and the mainstream, normal image his opponent presented.
Kyle Sammin is Broad + Liberty’s editor-at-large.