Editor’s Note: Jill Filipovic is a journalist based in New York and author of the book “OK Boomer, Let’s Talk: How My Generation Got Left Behind.” Follow her on Twitter. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely her own. View more opinion on CNN.
The candidates for the US Senate seat from Pennsylvania, Democrat John Fetterman and Republican Mehmet Oz, faced off in an agonizing live debate on Tuesday evening.
According to CNN’s polling in advance of the debate, Fetterman leads Oz in Pennsylvania. But neither man can justifiably claim debate victory. One performed badly; the other behaved badly. Now, Pennsylvania voters need to decide what they value more: Substance or presentation.
Each candidate faced a particular challenge. Oz, who owns several properties around the US and seems to have primarily lived in his New Jersey mansion until 2020, has made a series of embarrassing gaffes that critics say reflect his elitism and out-of-towner status; he needed to prove he wasn’t an out-of-touch carpetbagger. And Fetterman, who had a stroke in May, needed to show that he is physically and cognitively healthy, and up to the task of being a US senator.
Neither succeeded. For Fetterman supporters – and full disclosure, although I do not live in Pennsylvania, I would like to see Democrats maintain a majority in the Senate – the debate was some combination of heartbreak and bloodbath. And for any voter considering casting their ballot for Oz, the performance was one marked by petty cruelties and terrifying politics.
Fetterman came into the debate at a serious disadvantage. His stroke left him with an auditory processing disorder, which means that he has trouble interpreting spoken words and sometimes trips over his own. This isn’t a reflection of impaired cognition, but like many disabilities that affect speech and hearing, it is too often unfairly read as such.
The debate featured monitors that broadcast transcriptions of the moderators’ questions and the candidates’ responses, to make it easier for Fetterman to follow along. This shouldn’t be a big deal, and concerns over these accommodations and Fetterman’s verbal stumbles reflect widespread ignorance about how the brain works and repairs itself. But that ignorance is nonetheless widespread – many people see a guy who needs to read words in addition to listening to them, and who occasionally stumbles when he tries to talk, and they might assume that his disabilities stem from an intellectual problem.
And so the Fetterman campaign was assigned a difficult task: Demonstrate that Fetterman’s conversational limitations are no more related to his mental acuity than Joe Biden’s stutter, and that the accommodations he needs to do his job well are no more related to his leadership abilities than are reading glasses, a hearing aid or a wheelchair. And they had to do so in a media economy where reporters too often seem much more interested in Fetterman’s health than Oz’s ideas, policy proposals or fitness for office.
Fetterman has succeeded in politics by playing by his own rules, which perhaps gave his campaign a bit of courage leading up to the debate. He has what pundits like to call “authenticity.” That is, despite being in elected office, he maintains many of the social markers of the working-class White man – from the way he dresses, to his imposing size, to the way he speaks.
Oz, by contrast, carries on him the markers of a salesman hawking wares to a nouveau-riche easily tempted by snake oil. You might have nodded along with his expertise on Oprah – he was, after all, a respected surgeon before his foray into weight loss gimmicks and then politics – but it’s tough to imagine the guy understands what your life is like or can imagine policy solutions to address your community’s biggest problems. In this debate, in other words, Fetterman had to overcome viewer stereotypes about disability and the related accommodations; Oz had to overcome who he is.
Even knowing all of this, the debate was painful to watch. Oz was indeed rude. But it’s tough for anyone but the most committed partisan to argue that this debate went well for Fetterman.
I should say here that all of us should have tremendous admiration for Fetterman. He’s recovering from a stroke; he knows he is not as coherent and articulate as he was this time last year, and – because he is not in fact cognitively impaired – he is acutely aware of how much his mouth is not cooperating with his brain.
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He was asked to compete in an impossible arena, with his disabilities being among the worst kind for live television, and going toe-to-toe on live television with an opponent who is a professional television personality. And still, he showed up. That’s a kind of courage, character, and gumption we rarely see from practiced politicians with teams of careful advisers; it’s the kind of underdog story Americans love, at least when it’s in the movies.
It is also worth pausing to recognize just how cruel Oz’s campaign has been to Fetterman after his stroke, and how badly that sneering mockery played during the debate. His campaign’s treatment of Fetterman and his stroke-related speech impairments is unpalatable and repulsive. Hopefully that gives voters pause, as it should in a country where a great many families have been touched by death, illness and disability.
But I imagine it’s difficult even for Fetterman’s supporters to deny just how difficult watching that debate really was – and not just because of Oz’s condescension.
Fetterman is a passionate guy who has spent his career in public service doing excellent work, and his tell-it-like-it-is persona has propelled him ever higher. Unfortunately, that didn’t shine through on Tuesday night. Fetterman, under tremendous stress and working to overcome his processing challenges, was caught in a loop of repeated phrases and accusations, light on details and heavy on (well-earned) frustration. He was straight up with viewers from the start.
“I’ve had a stroke,” Fetterman said, noting that Oz has “never let me forget that.” And he added, “I might miss some words during this debate, it might knock me down, but I’m going to keep getting back up.” Unfortunately, even that expectation-setting didn’t make up for a candidate who often struggled with his answers and simply couldn’t get into much in the way of policy specifics going head-to-head with one who got fabulously wealthy selling bad ideas to gullible audiences.
That isn’t to say that Oz was a master debater. In perhaps the most revealing portion of the debate, Oz was asked about abortion, which is at immediate risk on a national level if Republicans gain control of Congress – Republicans have introduced a national abortion ban, which they may have the votes to pass if Republicans take a majority. When asked about whether he would support a national abortion ban, Oz’s answer was troubling: Abortion rights, he said, should not be decided by the federal government, but should rather be a matter decided by a woman and her doctor… and “local political leaders” who can collectively weigh in so that states – not women – “can decide for themselves” whether abortion should be criminalized.
In other words, abortion is not just a woman’s right – it’s an open political question.
That disregard of basic rights and dignities isn’t reserved only for women. Oz can be cruel – about Fetterman’s stroke and health in particular – which is particularly troubling coming from a doctor who one would hope might lead with a bit more empathy.
But when it comes to political debates, the unfortunate reality is that showmanship trumps substance. That’s a shame – on the merits, I would bet that Fetterman’s positions are more in line with what Pennsylvania voters want. And Pennsylvania voters should understand, in no uncertain terms, that an Oz victory and a Republican majority in the Senate likely means a Republican attempt at a national abortion ban, Republican-led whittling-away at Social Security and further attacks on American democracy.
In a sane political world, Oz’s views would be disqualifying, no matter how slick his presentation. In our actual political world, I worry that Fetterman’s presentation – and mostly the public’s unfamiliarity with people who are cognitively sharp but not sharply articulate – will be the deciding factor in this race.
This was all a real shame because on Tuesday night Fetterman showed he has more guts and commitment to the democratic process, no matter how badly the platform worked against him, than any candidate in recent memory. He’s banking on the hope that voters will see through the imperfect presentation and focus on the substance. And now it’s up to voters to decide if they’re going to meet his idealism, or if they require made-for-TV artifice.