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October 26, 2022

Three takeaways from the Fetterman-Oz debate in Pennsylvania's U.S. Senate race

Voters got their first real exposure to the impact of the Democratic candidate's stroke, and it was jarring. His Republican opponent feasted on an uneven playing field.

2022 Election Debates
Fetterman Oz Debate Main Screenshot/PHL17

Democratic Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. John Fetterman and Republican Mehmet Oz held their lone debate in the state's U.S. Senate race on Tuesday night. Fetterman's speech challenges after his stroke in May, which had largely been shielded from public view, brought new questions to the stretch run before the Nov. 8 election.

Entering Tuesday night's debate between Democrat John Fetterman and Republican Mehmet Oz, the race for Pennsylvania's open U.S. Senate seat widely had been deemed a toss-up with just two weeks to go before the mid-term elections.

In a purple state like Pennsylvania, such a close contest made an event like last night's — the lone debate between Fetterman and Oz — a potentially pivotal showing for both candidates to win over undecided voters, many of them moderates and independents who can tilt the outcome of a race with major national stakes.

Tuesday night's debate in Harrisburg put on display the unmistakable challenges that Fetterman, the state's lieutenant governor and former Braddock mayor, still faces five months removed from a near-fatal stroke. For Oz, the retired heart surgeon and former TV doctor, the advantage provided a layup to showcase his telegenic charisma and political instincts against an opponent whose condition left him plainly overmatched in that setting.

Here are three key takeaways from the debate.

Fetterman and his campaign seriously misjudged the political risk

Prior to the debate, the Fetterman campaign tried to temper expectations by warning that viewers would witness the lingering effects of the stroke that occurred just before Fetterman's Democratic primary victory. The public was reminded that Fetterman would use a real-time closed-captioning system to help him overcome the auditory processing issues that complicate his abilities to listen and speak, but it was unclear how that would play out in a fast-paced TV debate. 

Few people unfamiliar with stroke recovery could have been prepared for how limited and halting Fetterman was on Tuesday night. He implored viewers to overlook his impediment whenever he mixed up his words or struggled to elaborate on his ideas — particularly within the parameters of this debate format — but what was painfully obvious to anyone watching last night is that Fetterman couldn't possibly have kept up with Oz under the circumstances. 

And it begs the question why his campaign would finally agree to their opponent's insistence on a TV debate that set Fetterman up for an unnecessary failure — and greater skepticism than had already existed.

Debates, in some ways, are like the standardized tests of running for office. They matter and they win votes, but they are not reflective of a candidates's skills or efficacy in a fully dynamic, real-world environment. They are an opportunity to showcase political talent and personality in the competitive spotlight, yet they are far from a demonstration of what a candidate's work life will look like on the job from day to day.

Fetterman managed to find a few poignant moments of clarity, calling out the difference between serving and using Pennsylvania, accusing Oz of doing the latter, but his inability to offer context on issues or respond with flexibility in the debate setting overshadowed all but the basic contours of his platform. Unfortunately for Fetterman, it left Oz more room to speak for Fetterman than Fetterman could open up himself, and then some.

To an undecided voter, Fetterman's shaky performance cannot have done him any favors, beyond sincere sympathy. A vote for Fetterman, among those who didn't already commit to him before Tuesday, would now seemingly be based on supporting any or all of his basic ideals, or rejecting any or all of those held by Oz and the Republican party. It has become a much more pragmatic, ideological vote. 

Knowing the state Fetterman has been in, one of the best things his campaign could have spent time doing is explaining how his core team intends to support him in his recovery, if elected, and how he and his team will overcome his current challenges to execute on his platform in Washington. There was little to be gained in keeping the extent of his speech problems out of the public eye, only to reveal how severe they can be in the crucial home stretch of the election. Much more could have been done to position his recovery and eventual role in the Senate as a team effort with recognizable faces, which would make Fetterman's plight more relatable than this did. 

Every person in a high political office has and needs a team of people. In theory, that makes a Fetterman victory workable, as long as there is a plan for him to manage and lead his team. He often sounded terrible out there on Tuesday night, but not incapable of working in a setting other than a timed debate, which just magnifies his exact problem right now. 

It would be little more than speculation to state whether Fetterman's neurocognitive struggles are a reflection merely of his speech, at this point in his recovery, or whether his mental acuity is compromised as well. What he's going through is hard to watch anyone face in life, and unimaginably harder for someone in his position to live.

But it is clear that the decision to debate Oz — whether Fetterman's choice, personally, or the choice of key members of his team, or both — was a highly questionable move that was not owed to Oz or even necessarily to the public at such a late stage in the race when Fetterman had already vowed to press forward with his run, despite his issues. Fetterman will garner compassion from anyone with a heart, but the independents and moderates this race appears to depend on are not typically the types to choose candidates with their emotions. Unless these voters are repulsed by Oz, this event can only have damaged Fetterman's chances with them. 

Fetterman's supporters can justify standing by him if they believe a team approach will be sufficient for him to succeed in office as he recovers. Having faith in the people who made this decision to debate might be hard. It would be reasonable for Fetterman's supporters to feel let down by what this may mean for the issues he's running to bring to Washington. That doesn't mean there's no way it can be done, and even done well with the right organizational structure. 

Oz reminded us why he's an appealing choice for Republicans and a lure for moderates

Praising Mehmet Oz for winning the debate would be ludicrous, but he deserves credit for seizing the moment and giving off the appearance of being a moderate, realist Republican.

There will be those who criticize Oz, a doctor, for exploiting a man in Fetterman's state. If this were a patient, would Oz actually sink to taking advantage of this person? The question itself is naive, politically, but not unworthy of consideration about Oz's character. The reality is that Oz would probably tell that patient not to continue a political campaign, but this is exactly where Oz wanted Fetterman to be trapped. Expecting Oz not to take advantage in order to win a U.S. Senate race is just not how the world works, and Fetterman's inability to answer his own character concerns, at least as they were presented last night, was simply worth the nauseating risk to the Oz campaign of coming across as predatory.

It is telling that Oz stalled a bit when asked about his support for former President Donald Trump, who endorsed him in the Republican primary. Eventually, Oz said he would support Trump running for president again in 2024, but Oz also essentially said he'd support any Republican who secures the nomination. Trump's endorsement of Oz, and the Republican party's backing of Oz in Pennsylvania, is really about Oz possessing many of the public speaking skills that helped Trump win Pennsylvania in 2016. It is an effective tool for Republicans to have energetic candidates like Oz, who relentlessly project the personal success stories they pitch to average voters. 

In light of Fetterman's more-or-less non-participation in this debate on any higher level of performance, all Oz needed to do to naturally appear moderate was repeat how extreme he views Fetterman's positions to be. Fetterman lacked the wherewithal to seriously challenge him with anything other than slogans that served as life jackets in a desperately pressured situation, even if the slogans are accurate. A debate requires more than that. Oz likely passed the low bar for many moderate voters, and at times gave eloquent responses that could convince some voters his foray into politics after a career in medicine really is a departure from the typical mold of a politician, as Oz asserted about himself last night. If that didn't do it for Oz, Fetterman's struggles may have been enough on their own. 

The tacit message Oz communicated — beyond his railing against extremism, tossing out loose statistics and decrying fentanyl — is that he intends to vote and conduct himself in much the way Pat Toomey has during his two terms in office. The difference is that Republicans will not waste Oz's flair for television and optics, and while Oz may convey a moderate sensibility as a person, more discerning voters will still connect the dots. They will recognize how Oz will be deployed in Washington to serve a party that is often further from moderate than Oz has spent his entire campaign painting Fetterman in order to set up this moment. 

Issues still matter in the home stretch of the race, and neither candidate came out of the debate unscathed

For as much as crime and public safety were expected to take center stage in last night's debate, it was issues such as abortion, inflation, immigration and energy policy that dominated more of its highlights and lowlights.

Throughout the race, Oz has tried to walk a middle ground on abortion, compared to a candidate like Doug Mastriano, whose extreme views on reproductive rights have contributed to Josh Shapiro's stronger lead in Pennsylvania's gubernatorial race. On Tuesday night, Oz could not escape stating outright that he believes states, and thus local politicians, should be determining abortion rights rather than the federal government protections that stood for decades before Roe v. Wade fell earlier this year.

Whether or not moderate voters who support abortion rights believe Oz as a senator would have a real effect on Pennsylvania's abortion laws, there will be voters who are engaged in this election to defeat Mastriano, and some of them will vote against Oz for the same reason. There may be moderates who view a split ticket as a way to resolve this discrepancy of values, but it could be a slippery slope even for them. It is tempting to view abortion as a single-issue obsession, but it still strikes at individual rights in much the same way that many pillars of the Republican platform do. Oz could suffer from espousing a position that threatens the values of people in the middle, many of whom have supported abortion rights as the long-held law of the land. 

On issues such as taxes and the economy, Fetterman's best quality in this debate was embodying the struggles of life that make economic hardship so crushing. That is genuine and required no spin, as much as Oz would like to portray Fetterman's life story as a tale of leaching off his parents. Oz's own privileged upbringing isn't absolved by being a doctor rather than the educator and mentor Fetterman was before entering politics. 

The debate's obvious flaws as a result of Fetterman's health problems gave Oz the space to be more coherent about issues such as taxes, or to point out that trade workers who didn't go to college may be squeezed by student debt forgiveness. But Fetterman is more in touch than Oz with the financial struggles Pennsylvanians face. He didn't have to state that articulately in order for it to register, and no amount of smooth talk from Oz would hide the blindspots of his socioeconomic status. 

Struggling voters know what ails them. The question is, will enough of them vote? Will young people struggling to get by take the time to vote? That looks like the most important question for Fetterman. Oz's contention that it should be easy for everyone to get jobs for "much more than $15 an hour" is preposterous in the United States today, much less in a state with a $7.25 minimum wage. Repeating the same Republican promises about market forces helping workers in significant numbers, while advocating for tax policies that benefit the wealthy above all, is not a compelling outlook from Oz or for voters sitting on the fence. Oz's energy policy is the closest thing to promising something tangible for Pennsylvania's economy, and that's why Fetterman more or less mirrored those stances in last night's debate at the expense of denying that he once felt differently — and strongly — about fracking. 

Where the candidates differ bluntly is that Fetterman blames oil companies and price gouging corporations for inflation, while Oz sees them only as job creators in a prosperity economy that asks voters to ignore and consent to the egregious wealth gaps in America.

It will be tempting for many observers to write Fetterman off after Tuesday night's debate — and not for nothing. It was a disaster for Fetterman's image as a competent candidate, at this point in time. But that is not the entire story of this race, and this race is not isolated from the larger picture of the U.S. Senate in which the winner will serve. 

Moderates and independents will need to grapple with what they believe to be Oz's true character and position within the workings of the Republican party, and if voters like this actively supported the bloc behind that GOP agenda wholesale, they would not be the skeptics they are on Election Day. 

How many of these voters are politically casual and likely to be decisively moved by this debate? How many will be swayed by the Oz campaign going to town over the next two weeks by burning Fetterman's downtrodden image in effigy with clips of his poor showing last night? Pennsylvania is purple, but the voting public that blends those colors has been mysterious, at best, when it comes to deciding these questions on the ballot. Issues ultimately are what will touch voters' lives, not the names or the looks of the candidates.

The ability to communicate to the public is a big part of the job that people see politicians doing, though. And in that area, Fetterman's position today is now much weaker and harder for him, politically and personally. It would have been difficult for anyone in his shoes to show greater strength than he did.