Even before either John Fetterman or Mehmet Oz spoke, last night’s pre-election debate was off to a poor start. No fault of the moderators — although, did they seem like they were rushing through things to you, too? The problems began with the optics.
Oz started out looking like the Cheshire Cat, smiling, indulgent, ready to pounce. Clearly he was in his onscreen element and looking forward to a meal.
Fetterman looked like he always looks in a suit: awkward, oversized. But he also seemed intent and nervous. At least he looked … serious.
It’s been said before: Fetterman is far from the world’s best debater. Surely he was worried about how the effects of his stroke would play out under the bright lights, unforgiving camera lenses and rapid-fire questioning.
Couldn’t one of these guys onstage have made a warm gesture, even a self-deprecating joke — about crudités, or misspoken words, politics, or anything?
What happened next was, as NBC’s Joe Scarborough tweeted, “painful to watch regardless of one’s politics.” Fetterman clearly was not in any shape to be debating issues on a public stage.
More importantly, though: The debate was a regurgitation of attack ads we were already tired of.
Yes, American political debates rarely offer voters anything beyond canned talking points. But this election is too important for that to be all we got last night. What we needed was to see the people and ideas beyond the paid-for-bys.
In that, we all lost.
Do they even care about voters?
It began with the softest of softball questions. Moderator Dennis Owens of Harriburg’s WHTM — where was Jim Gardner when we needed him most? — listed Fetterman’s qualifications for U.S. Senate: mayor, Lieutenant Governor — not too shabby, right? He then asked Fetterman why he felt his experience made him the better candidate.
Fetterman responded by calling Oz a liar.
Oz: same question. You’re a surgeon and TV personality. How does this qualify you to be the next U.S. Senator from Pennsylvania?
He responded by declaring himself “bipartisan” then describing Fetterman as “extreme.” (Not to put too fine a point on it, since the bald and bearded six-foot-lots Democrat looming over the stage usually seems extreme — in appearance, at least.)
This was the candidates’ first open-for-all opportunity to talk about themselves. They blew it. Failing grades.
The hour dragged on. Fetterman seemed more at ease, but still really difficult to decipher. It was not a good look for the former Mayor of Braddock.
The S word
Fetterman was smart to bring up his stroke at the first opportunity and to say Oz hadn’t let him forget his condition. IMHO, Fetterman could and should have pointed out that, of all people, Oz should have taken the moral — and medical — high ground, instead of critiquing Fetterman’s lifestyle (which happens to match the lifestyle of many Pennsylvanians). Oz a doctor after all, a prominent member of a caring profession.
Fetterman’s mind might work as well as ever — according to his and more doctors a, it does — but the atmosphere and fast talk clearly exacerbated his current condition. His words came slowly, and out of order. At times, he made little to no sense. He is surely mentally all there, but last night, it really seemed like he wasn’t.
The debate left even some of his more ardent supporters wondering: Should he have bowed out of the race? One thing’s for sure: He should not have debated.
But he also should have switched up his messaging.
Did the #PASenateDebate change your mind about who you’re voting for?
— The Philadelphia Citizen (@thephilacitizen) October 26, 2022
Instead of having even a small arsenal of cogent, future-looking responses, or eliciting empathy, he resorted to the 10 mansions and New Jersey refrain, and, at one point, mentioned “swiping right.” (Doesn’t his campaign know that most debate watchers are way too old to get that reference?)
What happened to the vulnerability promised in Rebecca Traister’s New York magazine article (read mostly, it has to be said, by New Yorkers but then again, also featured on WHYY on The Takeaway)? Where was the guy sitting on the couch with his kids, talking about his second chance at life, his new insights to living with a disability, how his stroke weakened his speaking abilities, but strengthened his mind, heart, and resolve to protect Pennsylvanians?
Oz remains behind in the polls by a negligible margin. With any lead at all, why did the Fetterman campaign think it was a good idea to debate, knowing the situation would put their candidate — already uncomfortable in a suit, already a poor debater — in a worse light — and with only two weeks to go before the election?
We all know someone who’s had a stroke. Each year, 795,000 Americans have one. Why couldn’t Fetterman’s talking points have aimed at making him more … relatable?
Oz’s did. Sort of. I mean, he dragged out the de rigueur name-drops of regular, non-famous folk he’s met along the campaign trail. He shouted out a town or two without screwing up pronunciations.
But he also said, “I’ve been to Philadelphia.” Locals cringed. The statement recalled a mashup between Mehmet mentor Donald Trump’s “bad things happen in Philadelphia” and Tina Fey-as-Sarah Palin’s “I can see Russia from my house.” Even my 10-year-old was insulted. “Whoopee,” he said, heading upstairs to bed, “He’s been here.”
Smarmy Oz also showed his own disconnect from reality when he said both that market should regulate minimum wage (and that $15 was too low an hourly rate, anyway) — and that abortion should be decided among a woman, her physician, and … a “local politician.” Really? Can you imagine requesting permission from Darrell Clarke or David Oh in order to undergo a gynecological procedure? Asking Bob Brady for birth control, or even Mary Gay Scanlon?
We deserve better.
About one hour before the debate began, I observed an AARP-organized discussion among 10 women voters from Montgomery, Bucks, Delaware and Chester counties. These women largely agreed on the issues: They want gun control. They want reproductive rights. They want Social Security fixed for future generations. They’ve experienced racism and gender inequality, especially when it comes to women’s incomes, and they want leaders who’ll deliver equity.
Unlike recent polls that have reported voters care most about the economy and inflation, these voters said they care most about threats to representative democracy. Without democracy, they said, none of the above matter.
But, to make the point here, my AARPeeps also want to understand how the candidates work. What are their leadership skills? How do they collaborate? Can they cross the aisle? See another’s point of view? Govern with compassion? They’re sick of attacks, of fear mongering, of the not-so-veiled racism in “one party’s” (these Pennsylvanians were extremely polite) messaging.
Why couldn’t either candidate show us any of that, even a little bit? Oz started out saying he was bipartisan. But, as the hour progressed, if you can call it progress, he offered no policy, no examples to back up his proclaimed both-sides approach.
I wanted to tell the campaigns: Your audience is tired of divisiveness. We are craving civility. This is why, as Larry Platt pointed out a couple weeks ago, we love sports. Sports are a best possible show of both competition and teamwork. This was not that. Instead, I’m guessing lots of people who tuned in tuned out soon thereafter.
Couldn’t one of the guys on the stage have made a warm gesture, even a self-deprecating joke — about crudités, misspoken words, politics, kids … anything? Instead, the whole thing seemed like an exercise in masochism — and macho-ism. Like a dare gone wrong. We should be able to expect more from our candidates and from our elected officials.
Quite frankly, we deserve better.
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