The Democrat's performance at last night's debate was extremely concerning
In a Senate contest that may decide the balance of power in the next Congress, Pennsylvanians had just one chance to observe the two major party candidates in a debate. In the case of one of them, it was easy to see why he would not allow more than one.
Democrat John Fetterman faced Republican Mehmet Oz in the hour-long question-and-answer setting last night, where the Democrat’s main goal was to appear physically competent and politically reasonable. He struggled on both points.
After suffering a stroke four days before his primary election win in May, Fetterman and his team have worked hard to present the candidate as being well on the road to recovery, while avoiding any direct contact with the media that might call that pronouncement into question. Initially, he had refused to debate and then, under pressure, acquiesced to a single debate with closed captioning to help him. Here, Fetterman was forced to expose the degree to which the cardiovascular incident had left him debilitated.
From his first words to the crowd, when he said “good night” instead of “hello” or “good evening,” it was clear that his mind might be functioning but his communication skills were deeply impaired. Pundits on the Left tried, before the debate, to call such concerns “ableist,” but it is not discriminatory to wonder whether the man is up to the job — a job that mostly involves listening, speaking, and persuading.
On substance, Fetterman displayed a strange intransigence on several issues. The moderators asked why he had changed his mind on fracking from 2018, when he opposed it absolutely, to now, when he supports it. Instead of explaining the change of heart, he insisted multiple times he had never opposed the practice — a big deal in this gas-exporting state — even as the moderators produced exact quotes from him. It was hard to tell if this was a mental breakdown or just evidence that Fetterman — who has never faced a serious challenge from a Republican — just does not know how to answer hard questions.
For Mehmet Oz, who emerged from a bruising primary to narrowly win the Republican nomination, the goal was to consolidate support among his base while also presenting a moderate image that might draw in independent voters. This was a serious challenge — although he won the primary with Donald Trump’s endorsement, Oz has struggled to convince conservative Pennsylvanians that he is anything more than an out-of-state opportunist (he did not live in Pennsylvania until very recently).
The seasoned TV professional came off as fluent and well-spoken, aiming for that sweet spot of competence and mainstream conservatism that the retiring incumbent, Senator Pat Toomey, has long typified. It is hard to get that across over a series of sixty-second statements — these debates are better for exposing flaws and mistakes than expressing a coherent philosophy — but Oz had ample opportunity to contrast his own moderate positions and outsider status with Fetterman’s doctrinaire progressivism, and he mostly hit the marks.
Do debates matter? Pundits disagree. But this race, nearly tied in the polls, will give us a chance to test the idea. Any Pennsylvanian who watched last night saw a clear contrast between a diminished progressive politician and a savvy conservative outsider. One capacity and on politics, it is not a contrast Fetterman was eager to draw.