Opinion

Did John Fetterman's debate performance hurt his chances of winning the election?

The candidate was still recovering from his stroke when he went toe-to-toe with TV personality Dr. Oz

On Oct. 25, Pennsylvania Senate candidates Lt. Gov. John Fetterman and TV host Dr. Mehmet Oz had their first and only debate

Critics observed that Fetterman, the Democrat in the race, was incredibly "rocky" throughout the debate, with some going as far as to characterize his performance as "disastrous." This was primarily chalked up to the fact that Fetterman, never known to be a strong debater, had a stroke back in May resulting in audio processing and speech problems; while his doctor has insisted the candidate "should be able to campaign and serve in the U.S. Senate without a problem," Republicans have seized on his health issues as a sign he's not fit for office. Meanwhile, Oz — naturally adept at speaking on TV given his experience hosting his own show — was widely seen as the runaway winner of the night. "Why the hell did Fetterman agree to this?" one Democratic lawmaker asked Axios in the aftermath. "This will obviously raise more questions than answers about John's health."

Before the debate, Fetterman was ahead in polls, even if only slightly, but many Democrats are concerned that the debate may have turned the tide on the election. Others believe that it was brave of Fetterman to debate Oz and that his performance doesn't indicate how he would serve as senator. Has Fetterman's less-than-stellar debate performance cost him the election?

Fetterman is still the better choice

There are still a good number of people who believe that while the debate may have been a bump in the road, all is far from over. Ross Barkan, in an opinion piece for The Guardian, explained, "Fetterman is far better prepared for the job than Oz, a celebrity doctor with no political experience."

Plenty of Pennsylvania residents concur. For example, in a letter to the editor of The New York Times, Ken Perkins from Pittsburgh commented that "made-for-TV debates do not capture how they would perform as a U.S. senator," noting that Fetterman spent years "learning from citizens all around the state."

As of Oct. 28, Fetterman was still leading over Oz at 46.8 percent to 45.8 percent, according to FiveThirtyEight. However, Fetterman's lead has undoubtedly narrowed. Even despite this, Barkan argues that Democrats can look past Fetterman's health struggles when Senate control is at stake. During the debate, Fetterman "demonstrated he was a candidate who could appeal to progressives and moderates alike."

Criticism of Fetterman's performance showcases American ableism

Fetterman is a rare candidate who has been open about his disabilities, including autism, ADHD, Tourette's syndrome, stutters, dyslexia, learning disabilities, and aphasia (damage to the part of the brain controlling speech) from his stroke, reports The Washington Post. This has caused many disability advocates to defend and applaud him for taking part in the debate despite his struggles. He used closed captioning during the debate to aid him and had some noticeable trouble articulating his thoughts.

Oz's campaign, though, has been particularly brutal towards Fetterman's conditions and accommodations, releasing a mocking statement ahead of the debate saying, "Dr. Oz promises not to intentionally hurt John's feelings at any point."

Andrew Pulrang, co-founder of CripTheVote, said, "Disability and disability accommodations are a question mark for a lot of people — they raise questions, they raise suspicion," and noted how Fetterman's ability to be a senator was called into question. Judith Weiss, in a piece for NBC News, wrote, "it pains me to see how the Oz campaign misrepresents Fetterman's condition, creating more challenges for those of us who are already shamed for what is a common and often curable condition."

Weiss, who also struggled with aphasia, continued: "Attacks on Fetterman bring back some of the pain. But they speak to courage, too."

Oz was the alarming one during the debate

Some who watched the debate argued that Fetterman's difficulties could not overshadow Oz's extreme views. Zeeshan Aleem, an MSNBC columnist, wrote that "Fetterman is a progressive with sound ideas about what's needed to make the country better, while Oz is an extremist and a political opportunist who has shape-shifted into a MAGA supporter." 

One notable example was Oz not properly taking a stance on whether to ban abortion, only saying that there "should not be involvement from the federal government in how states decide their abortion decisions." He also said, "I want women, doctors, local political leaders ... to put the best ideas forward so states can decide for themselves." The inclusion of "local political leaders" caused a backlash among Democrats.

This was not the only area where Oz avoided taking a stand or took one that people may view as too extreme. Oz also confirmed that he "would support Donald Trump if he decided to run for president."

Aleem remarked that Oz's positions "should worry Pennsylvanians for their extremism and alignment with Trump's authoritarian movement." Robin Abcarian, writing for the Los Angeles Times, added: "Would you rather be represented by a senator plodding along in what you believe is the right direction, or one who is racing the wrong way at top speed?"

Fetterman's team failed him by letting him show up to the debate

"The debate last night between the candidates for U.S. Senate in Pennsylvania was uncomfortable, elemental, a little surreal, and not much like any political debate I've ever seen before," wrote Benjamin Wallace-Wells for The New Yorker. Though "at first, [Fetterman's] aides had seemed to cope expertly with the candidate's absence" from the campaign trail immediately following his stroke, Republicans were eventually successful in goading him onto the debate stage.

That was a mistake. "After watching the debate in Harrisburg … it's an open question whether it was a wise decision to put him on the stage with Oz," wrote Dan Merica, Jeff Zeleny, and Kit Maher for CNN. "It was, at many points, difficult to watch. Most, if not all, Democrats will almost certainly give him the benefit of the doubt, but it's an open question whether voters will."

Michael Brendan Dougherty, writing for the National Review, felt the same. "Watching [Fetterman] debate Dr. Oz tonight excited my pity for him, and my anger for everyone around him — his partner, his campaign operation, the Democratic Party of Pennsylvania, and any national party figures who were aware of his condition before this debate," he wrote, adding: "John Fetterman should not have been on a debate stage tonight. He should be at home, recovering from his stroke."

Fetterman is clearly not fit to be a senator

Though medical professionals have confirmed that Fetterman is capable of running for Senate, there are also plenty who believe that his recent stroke and obvious debate struggles make him unfit for office.

Republicans have been arguing as much since his stroke back in May. Rep. Dan Meuser (R-Pa.) told Newsmax even before the debate that he hoped "people [would] stop their woke feeling about [the stroke] and say, 'Who can best represent Pennsylvania and our country in the U.S. Senate?'"

In another letter to the editor of the TimesMichael Eckstut wrote after the debate that Fetterman is "clearly unable at this time to be a fully capable and functioning senator" and that he should have "stepped down and let the Democrats run another candidate."  Eckstut added, "I fault his selfishness for continuing to run because he is not doing the best for the people of Pennsylvania."

More From...

Devika Rao
Read All
Biden announces relocation funding for native tribes impacted by climate change
Biden at Tribal Nations Summit
Higher ground

Biden announces relocation funding for native tribes impacted by climate change

Why Australia doesn't want to list the Great Barrier Reef as endangered
Great Barrier Reef
danger zone

Why Australia doesn't want to list the Great Barrier Reef as endangered

The biggest tech layoffs of 2022
A pink slip.
Briefing

The biggest tech layoffs of 2022

Everything to know about the storm poised to pummel the South
Tornado
Storm Watch

Everything to know about the storm poised to pummel the South

Recommended

Biden announces relocation funding for native tribes impacted by climate change
Biden at Tribal Nations Summit
Higher ground

Biden announces relocation funding for native tribes impacted by climate change

IRS hands Trump's federal tax returns over to House committee
Donald Trump.
access granted

IRS hands Trump's federal tax returns over to House committee

ISIS confirms its leader was killed, does not provide details
A militant is seen holding the flag of ISIS in 2015.
Another One Gone

ISIS confirms its leader was killed, does not provide details

Jeffries chosen to succeed Pelosi as leader of House Dems
Hakeem Jeffries.
Ch-ch-ch-ch-changes

Jeffries chosen to succeed Pelosi as leader of House Dems

Most Popular

World's 1st hydrogen-powered jet engine could mark turning point for aviation industry
A Rolls-Royce engine seen during an airshow.
Flying High

World's 1st hydrogen-powered jet engine could mark turning point for aviation industry

Everything to know about the storm poised to pummel the South
Tornado
Storm Watch

Everything to know about the storm poised to pummel the South

Why did Merrick Garland appoint a special counsel to investigate Trump?
Trump, Garland, and Smith.
Briefing

Why did Merrick Garland appoint a special counsel to investigate Trump?