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The Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Pennsylvania Debate

Oz came across as obnoxious. Fetterman struggled to connect.
October 25, 2022
The Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Pennsylvania Debate
(Composite / Photos: GettyImages / Shutterstock)

Those of you who believe in participation trophies ought to order one for John Fetterman. That’s about the only award he merits for his performance Tuesday night in Pennsylvania’s first and only 2022 Senate debate.

There’s no delicate way to put this: Fetterman was, at times, barely coherent. His opponent, Mehmet Oz, was able to consistently form complete sentences—but, for an experienced TV personality, he didn’t do much to endear himself to viewers with his relentlessly negative attacks on Fetterman and his self-satisfied smirks. The debate was so unpleasant to watch that the only good thing about it is that Pennsylvania voters won’t have to suffer seeing these two men together on stage again.

Fair or not, Fetterman’s health issues were glaring. In the run-up to the debate, the Fetterman campaign sought to lower expectations for the candidate who suffered from a stroke in May and depended on closed-captioning assistance to understand the questions. Post-game, his campaign spun it this way: “For a guy who’s just been in the hospital months ago, he took it to Dr. Oz pretty fucking hard tonight.” Still, there is only so much staff can do for a candidate who struggled to explain and defend his policy positions. And while, at the human level, he deserves immense credit for getting on the stage while still recovering, and in political terms, he deserves credit for going through with the debate—unlike, say, Arizona Democratic gubernatorial candidate Katie Hobbs—Fetterman will undoubtedly need to find a way to assure voters in the closing days of his campaign that he is fit for the job.

Several times it appeared as though Fetterman lost his train of thought—like when he was asked to reconcile why he changed his position on fracking:

Or on what policy positions he disagrees with President Biden:

And when he explained why he would not release any more medical records:

There were more such moments, but you get the point.

That’s not to say that Oz came off as an eloquent speaker. He relied so heavily on talking points it was often difficult to understand what he was even talking about. One example: “Fetterman takes everything to an extreme, and those extreme positions hurt us all” and “Washington keeps getting it wrong with extreme positions.” It was as if he had one phrase he was told he must drive home, and so he hammered away at it to the point of meaninglessness.

Oz was asked several times to clarify his position on bans and vaguely sketched out a position where he opposed federal laws of any kind, either to restrict or expand abortion access. While evading the question, he tossed off a bizarre, bordering on incomprehensible, position: He said he wanted the decision left to “women, doctors, local political leaders, letting the democracy that’s always allowed our nation to thrive to put the best ideas forward so states can decide for themselves.”

It should have been a policy area easy for Fetterman to attack, but Fetterman simply shouted: “You roll with Doug Mastriano!”—a reference to the state’s Republican gubernatorial candidate who supports legislation to ban abortion after six weeks and has said that women could be charged with murder for aborting a pregnancy beyond that time frame.

Frustrated viewers could be forgiven for changing the channel.

That said, at the start of the debate, Fetterman did warn, “I might miss some words during this debate.” Oz had no excuse.  Fetterman also made a promise. In what sounded like lyrics snatched from Chumbawamba, Fetterman promised that if he got “knocked down,” he would “keep coming back up.” He’ll need that kind of attitude in the days ahead.

Amanda Carpenter

Amanda Carpenter is an author, a former communications director to Sen. Ted Cruz, and a former speechwriter to Sen. Jim DeMint. She was formerly a Bulwark political columnist.