There have been two crucial and very close Senate races in which the willingness and ability of a candidate to debate has itself become a key issue. In Georgia, Republican Herschel Walker dodged and resisted debates for months amid countless revelations of problems in his background and a tendency to speak in word salads. He finally agreed to a single encounter with Democratic incumbent Raphael Warnock and probably helped himself by exceeding very low expectations.
In Pennsylvania, Democrat John Fetterman, who is recovering from a stroke that nearly killed him five months ago, agreed to a single debate with Republican opponent Mehmet Oz, who had made Fetterman’s reluctance to debate a token of his unfitness to serve. In the hourlong encounter in Harrisburg on Tuesday night, Fetterman struggled with his health condition, but Oz probably spoiled some of his advantage by bullying his opponent and firing off points at a speed too quick for many to follow. It was like watching a smart-ass Ivy League college debater beat up on an opponent from a small school who had left his notes back home.
Fetterman’s disadvantage was obvious from the beginning, when the moderators explained their questions would be displayed via closed-caption to accommodate auditory-processing issues associated with his stroke, which happened in May just prior to his big victory in the Democratic primary. The lieutenant governor had word-choice difficulties right away in his opening statement, and for the first half of the debate was notably laboring to keep up with questions and with Oz’s relentless attacks. If you have ever been exposed to people suffering from the temporary post-stroke ailment of aphasia, it was a familiar problem, one that had nothing to do with Fetterman’s mental acuity and did not represent a permanent condition. But given the high-speed debate format, it was difficult for the Democrat to hold his own.
From a substantive point of view, the only really bad moment for Fetterman was after a moderator’s question about conflicting positions he had taken on fracking, a big issue in Pennsylvania, when he reiterated he is currently for fracking.
Fetterman did become compellingly passionate about health care as a fundamental right, including the reproductive rights he wants to defend in codifying the Roe v. Wade precedent overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court, and his long-term commitment to the fight against gun violence. But he was clearly on the defensive throughout the debate.
Oz, however, may have erred significantly in failing to ease up a bit on Fetterman when it became obvious this wasn’t a tit-for-tat high-velocity debate. At one point, the Republican snarkily apologized to Fetterman for having not been “clear enough for you to understand.” It was not a good look for a physician alleged to care for those suffering from medical ailments.
In the end, the two candidates were able to identify themselves with their respective parties and ideologies clearly enough. It is unlikely that many undecided voters watched the debate, and secondary coverage is likely to touch lightly on Fetterman’s temporary physical condition or Oz’s graceless response. The two campaigns will, of course, resume their mutual recriminations and base-mobilization efforts right through to Election Day. The debate probably didn’t change anything for anyone paying attention to this strange but vital race.