In the opening moments of the Pennsylvania Senate debate, I thought John Fetterman, stumbles and all, was appearing coherent enough to assure Democratic voters that it was safe to vote for him.
Then the wheels came off.
The struggling stroke victim turned in a train-wreck performance that makes you wonder how his campaign thought he could go up against Mehmet Oz in a fast-paced, hour-long debate, even with the aid of closed captioning. And it may well swing the race – Fetterman was up by only 1.3% in the Real Clear Politics average – to the television doctor.
Now remember all the abuse that was heaped on Dasha Burns, the NBC correspondent who had the audacity to tell the truth about Fetterman. She said he had trouble making small talk. For that Burns was denounced by liberal journalists and commentators as if she had mounted a vicious attack on the lieutenant governor – she must be horrible at small talk! – when she had merely offered an honest observation.
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I led off “Media Buzz” that week by saying this was sheer partisanship by media people who just wanted Fetterman to win the Senate seat. And that raised expectations that were dashed Tuesday night.
It wasn’t that Oz had a spectacular debate, though he’s obviously polished in front of the camera. He repeatedly ducked questions, though more smoothly than his opponent. He seemed condescending at times, once telling Fetterman, “Obviously I wasn’t clear enough for you to understand this.”
He called Fetterman “extreme” or “radical” so often that it was obviously his scripted talking point. And he gave an answer on abortion that was a ready-made 30-second ad against him.
But all that was overshadowed by what Fetterman called “the elephant in the room” – his halting, often tangled delivery. While totally understandable for a recovering stroke victim, it reinforced deep doubts about his ability to serve.
Fetterman tried to turn this into a positive – he’s a fighter who was knocked down and got back up, like many people facing health challenges – but the debate was painful to watch.
The moderators (who missed so many opportunities to pin down the candidates) confronted Oz and Fetterman with past quotes showing they had clearly flip-flopped from past opposition to current support for fracking, a key Pennsylvania issue. Oz ignored his previous stance and simply reiterated that he’s for fracking now.
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Fetterman attempted to do the exact same thing, but this is how it came out:
“I do support fracking…I support fracking and I stand — I support fracking.” It was his worst moment of the night.
Oz, for his part, tried to repeatedly duck the abortion question, and then came out with this:
“I want 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.” I’m sure suburban women will be glad to defer to local political leaders. (The moderators kept pressing about Lindsey Graham’s proposed ban on abortion after 15 weeks – Oz takes the reasonable position there should be no federal mandate – rather than asking about his position for Pennsylvania.)
Similarly, Oz tried to deflect a question about supporting Donald Trump by saying he’d back whoever the GOP nominee is. When reminded that Trump had endorsed him, Oz gave in, saying “I would support Donald Trump if he decided to run for president.”
There were lots of personal swipes: Fetterman jabbed Oz as a wealthy out-of-stater with 10 houses, while Oz derided Fetterman for living with his parents until he was in his forties.
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But with his limited linguistic ability, Fetterman let some Oz attacks on his record go unanswered, failed to take obvious shots at his opponent and the Republicans, such as when Social Security came up, and often didn’t use up his allotted time.
The reaction from liberal hosts and commentators fell into two categories. Some were honest in admitting that Fetterman had a very rough night. Some others, on MSNBC and CNN, either said nothing about Fetterman’s struggles, or just deferred to guests, or simply attacked Oz.
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The details will quickly fade from memory. People will remember one thing from this debate, that is that the Democratic nominee had enormous problems communicating. And if Oz wins the seat, the GOP’s chances of taking over the Senate increase exponentially.