The extent to which John Fetterman’s stroke has affected his brain function and auditory processing were on full display in Tuesday night’s Pennsylvania Senate debate. With early voting underway in Pennsylvania, it’s clear Fetterman’s campaign intentionally delayed the debate to gain as many early votes as possible. Of the 685,289 ballots already cast, 499,396 are registered as Democrats. On stage, Fetterman often struggled to make simple statements. Despite his disastrous performance, Fetterman’s campaign hopes the early votes will carry him to victory on election night.
Byron York; October 26, 2022
WHAT’S NEXT AFTER THE FETTERMAN DISASTER? Early voting is well underway in Pennsylvania. Indeed, one reason Democratic Senate candidate John Fetterman, recovering from a serious stroke, wanted to delay his debate with Republican Mehmet Oz was to bank as many early votes as possible before debate night. Given Fetterman’s disastrous performance in the debate, it was a good idea. And it worked. According to the Election Project, which compiles early voting figures from around the country, 685,289 Pennsylvanians cast their ballots before the debate. Of those, 499,396 were registered Democrats. The Fetterman campaign wanted to get its team to the polls before what was likely to be a discouraging debate.
The debate turned out to be, as many observed, painful to watch. Fetterman’s recovery from his May stroke has clearly not progressed to the point where he can successfully take part in a traditional debate — that is, in one of the traditional events of a campaign. The day before the debate, his campaign team sent a memo to reporters to prepare them for “awkward pauses, missing some words, and mushing other words together” when Fetterman took the stage. The idea was to lower expectations and not have the press express surprise when Fetterman had difficulty communicating.
But it was much worse than that. At times, Fetterman struggled to make even a simple point. To cite one example: The struggle was particularly apparent when he tried to execute a classic politician’s flip-flop on fracking. The technique of fracking is hugely important to the oil and gas industry in Pennsylvania, which means it is hugely important to Pennsylvania as a whole. But the debate moderators pointed out that in May 2018, not all that long ago, Fetterman said, “I don’t support fracking. I never have.”
On the debate stage, Fetterman denied what he had said just four years earlier. “I have always supported fracking,” he said. Then he tried to explain by saying that the reason he supports fracking is that he is “living closer to anybody else in Pennsylvania for fracking to myself” — a word jumble that left listeners trying to make sense of things. Then the moderator pointed again to the contradiction between what Fetterman said in 2018 and what he was saying in the debate. Fetterman paused for an uncomfortable length of time. “I do support fracking,” he said haltingly. “And I don’t, I don’t. I support fracking, and I stand, and I do support fracking.”
Fetterman was bad enough on the substance of the issue. But he quite obviously could not explore the question in any detail, could not deal with what it meant. This is how Politico Playbook described him the next morning: “Fetterman’s disability … prevents him from performing adequately in a candidate ritual — the campaign debate — that has long been associated, correctly or not, with electability and effectiveness in Congress. The plain fact is that Fetterman was not capable of debating Oz. He could have skipped the debate, as some Democrats suggested he should have after it was over, but the Fetterman campaign gambled that the media would educate voters about his auditory issues and then referee any attacks on him with charges of ableism.”
The short version: The Fetterman campaign knew he wasn’t up for it but counted on a biased media to cover for him in the critical post-debate period, when millions of voters who did not watch the debate formed opinions of it based on news coverage.
Fetterman’s other plan was to stay on the attack. His campaign jumped on what appeared to be a commonsense statement Oz made about abortion and portrayed it as an Oz attempt to station government officials in hospital rooms with pregnant women. As the debate was still underway, Democratic partisans began tweeting that Oz had said the decision to have an abortion in Pennsylvania should be left up to “a woman, her doctor, and local political leaders.” The quote quickly spread through political social media.
Except it wasn’t a quote. Here is what Oz actually said when he described how he believes abortion should be handled in the United States after the Supreme Court’s decision overturning Roe v. Wade:
There should not be involvement from the federal government in how states decide their abortion decisions. As a physician, I’ve been in the room when there are some difficult conversations happening. I don’t want the federal government involved with that at all. 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 am not going to support federal rules that block the ability of states to do what they wish to do. The abortion decision should be left up to states. I’ve been very clear on my desire as a physician not to interfere with how states decide.
It was an entirely reasonable description of how abortion lawmaking and policymaking should proceed in post-Roe America. How else would it, for that matter? But the next morning, Fetterman released a new ad charging that Oz wants “women, doctors, local political leaders” to be in charge of “women’s healthcare decisions.” The ad replayed the words “local political leaders” twice.
Some media outlets appeared to be on Fetterman’s side, presenting Oz’s statement as a huge blunder that gave Fetterman the opening to expose Oz’s extreme position on abortion. But here is the thing. The Supreme Court sent abortion policy to the states. Someone has to decide what each state’s policy will be. How could that be done without political leaders? All sides would agree that there need to be laws regulating abortion in the states. For example, who is licensed to perform abortions? What standards of care should exist? Will there be any limitations on when a pregnancy abortion can be performed? Will there not be any limitations? These are questions that political leaders answer.
The abortion brouhaha did two things. One, for some media commentators, it placed the Fetterman-Oz contest on the familiar grounds of a conventional abortion debate — one good guy (the Democratic candidate) versus one bad guy (the Republican candidate). And two, it directed attention away from Fetterman’s condition and the question of whether he is best able to be the senator from Pennsylvania.
The clock is ticking. These hours and days, immediately after the debate, will cement an impression in voters’ minds, most of whom did not watch the debate. It is genuinely difficult to know what they will decide.
Photo: AP Photo