Pennsylvania’s lieutenant governor John Fetterman and TV personality Mehmet Oz met for their only pre-election debate, in what was perhaps the most closely watched match ups of all U.S. Senate candidates this midterm cycle.
Viewers were reminded that their high stakes race could determine who controls the upper chamber, but the debate was unusual in that Fetterman, who suffered a stroke last spring, is still recovering, and needed the assistance of a captioning screen, as was shown to the audience beforehand.
Right off the bat, Fetterman signaled to viewers about how he would come across to the audience: “Let’s also talk about the elephant in the room. I had a stroke. [Oz] has never let me forget that. And I might miss some words during this debate, mush two words together. It knocked me down, but I am going to keep coming back up.”
At times, he did stumble on words and struggle to craft sentences, often hindering his ability to go on offense against Oz. But he finished his debate by talking of how he was “fighting for anyone in Pennsylvania that ever got knocked down and had to get back up again.”
There has been considerable debate over how much of an issue should be made of Fetterman’s condition, especially since he sat for an interview earlier this month with NBC News and attention was paid to his use of captioning to help with auditory processing, something common for those recovering from a stroke. Oz’s campaign last summer seemed to mock his condition when a spokesperson told Insider, “If John Fetterman had ever eaten a vegetable in his life, then maybe he wouldn’t have had a major stroke and wouldn’t be in the position of having to lie about it constantly.”
Oz has since tried to distance himself from that remark, but he still criticized Fetterman during the debate for not taking questions from potential voters or talking to reporters — even though, in the latter case, the Democratic nominee has sat for interviews.
And as Leland Vittert, anchoring NewsNation’s coverage of the debate, noted afterward, Oz talked fast during the debate, something that makes it more difficult for transcribers to keep up in their captioning.
As unique the circumstances may have been for the debate, they were not unprecedented. After suffering a stroke, Mark Kirk, the Republican senator from Illinois, faced rival Tammy Duckworth, who lost both her legs in Iraq, in a 2016 debate. He made a quip about how both needed the assistance of a wheelchair, but their physical challenges otherwise were not an issue.
But it was a greater issue at this debate, as Fetterman was asked by one of the moderators whether he would release his medical records. He suggested that his campaign’s release of a note from his doctor, attesting to his fitness to serve, was sufficient. “For me transparency is about showing up. I am here today to have a debate.” He also seemed to get in a dig at Oz, saying that the “real doctors” all believe “that I am ready to serve.”
For his part, Oz didn’t quite answer about one of his liabilities, that he’s used his TV show to promote questionable treatments.
“The show did very well because it provided high-quality information that empowered people, which is exactly what I want to do when I’m a senator,” he said. Asked if he had profited by promoting the products, he said, “I never sold weight loss products as described in those commercials. It’s a television show like this is a television show, so people can run commercials on the shows, and that is a perfectly appropriate and transparent process.”
As far as substance, the debate itself was rather so-so, rarely getting into the nuts and bolts of policy. More often than not, candidates used their time to attack the other as if they were engaged in a 280-character Twitter exchange.
Fetterman’s campaign had lowered expectations going into the debate, banking that voters would not hold his speech pattern against him and instead identify with his recovery. Oz, meanwhile, put his TV skills, honed over years on daytime television, on full display, even finishing with a message of unity, even as he said earlier in the hour that he would support Donald Trump, perhaps the most divisive of all figures this generation, if he were to run for president in 2024.
Will the debate make a difference? It would not be much of a surprise if the event drew a small audience, even in the Keystone state, as most viewers will be exposed to it via news clips or, given the millions yet to be poured into the race, a flood of accusatory ads.