It was always clear why Democrat Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. John Fetterman resisted participation in a traditional television debate with celebrity and Republican Senate candidate Dr. Mehmet Oz. Just watch the Democrat Senate candidate on the campaign trail.
But on Tuesday, after early voting led tens of thousands of Pennsylvania residents to cast their ballots already, Fetterman’s presence on the debate stage turned from an apparent act of political courage by a recent stroke survivor into an episode of abusive political malpractice. It was only five months ago that Fetterman suffered a debilitating stroke where — in his words — he, “almost died.”
The lieutenant governor opened the debate with, “Hi, goodnight everybody,” which was an apt preview of his next 60 minutes on stage.
Fetterman, of course, had no good options. He could have either refused a debate with Oz altogether, giving ammo to skeptics who use his refusal to offer press interviews without closed captioning as evidence that he is unfit for a six-year Senate term. Or he could have engaged with Oz in a one-on-one debate while aiming to minimize the lingering side effects of his recovery before the cameras. Fetterman and his campaign chose the latter, which ultimately turned out to be a disaster. The better option for Fetterman, his family, Pennsylvania voters, and the Democratic Party would have been for him to stay home and let someone else run a Senate campaign.
The Democrat Senate candidate struggled to string together coherent sentences throughout the entire night, which only got worse as the hour-long debate progressed — even with closed captioning at his request. When asked about his prior opposition to fracking and outright calls to ban it, Fetterman became a deer in the headlights.
“I do want to clarify something,” said the debate moderator directing her question at Fetterman. “You’re saying tonight that you support fracking, that you’ve always supported fracking, but there is that 2018 interview that you said, ‘I don’t support fracking at all,’ so how do you square the two?”
Silence took over the studio as Fetterman froze.
“I do support fracking,” Fetterman said. “I don’t, I don’t, I support fracking and I stand and I do support fracking.”
Any policy discussion during the debate, however, was distracted by Fetterman’s visibly labored endeavor even to comprehend what was happening on stage, which is half the job of a United States senator. His response to a question about his doctor clearing him as fit to serve failed to inspire a lot of confidence after half an hour of rambling.
“My doctoral believes that I’m fit to be serving, and that’s what I believe is where I’m standing,” Fetterman said.
At another moment on the subject of inflation, Fetterman, who relied on tens of thousands of dollars from his parents until he was in his 40s while living in a loft gifted to him, tried to paint Oz as the elitist in the race. Once again, however, the Democrat Senate candidate was all over the place uttering popular buzzwords such as “corporate greed” and “price gouging.”
This went on throughout the entire debate:
When asked by former CNN anchor Chris Cuomo after the debate whether Fetterman’s “brain function was intact,” neurologist Huma Sheikh said, “It’s hard to say.”
It’s not Fetterman’s fault he had a stroke. That he had one is a tragedy in itself. But parading him throughout Pennsylvania and on a prime-time debate stage when he should be recovering makes it worse.