It was billed as a crucial head-to-head. A midterm race that might decide which party controls the US Senate, come January 2023. During the Oct. 25 Pennsylvania Senate debate, Lt. Gov. John Fetterman’s (D) performance against Republican Dr. Mehmet Oz was almost painful to watch. The Democrat, who recently suffered a stroke, perhaps deserves credit for even attempting to make his case on live TV, faced with a self-assured opponent, in Oz, who took everything in stride. That said, Mr. Fetterman was entirely unable to prevent his medical condition from overshadowing the event to his detriment. But speech and language problems aside, the man upon whose shoulders the Democratic Party’s Senate majority could rest was unable to account for a record that runs contrary to what he now claims to stand for – or against – in these last two weeks of the midterm election campaigns.
Fetterman’s Policies on Display
One of the biggest issues going against Fetterman is his unwillingness to get tough on crime just when Pennsylvania’s largest metropolitan areas, like those in most other Democrat-run states, seem to be spiraling out of control. When challenged on the issue, Fetterman talked only about his stance against “gun violence.” Defenders of Second Amendment rights are well-acquainted with the tactic; when Democrats speak of reducing gun violence, they mean placing further restrictions on the gun rights of law-abiding citizens while doing nothing to reduce the presence and use of illegal firearms. The Democratic candidate paid no attention to his opponent’s charge that he favored early release from prison for many convicted criminals. Nor did Fetterman talk about policing or bail. Taking on gun violence was his only interest, it seems, in that area.
On the question of illegal immigration, Fetterman vaguely suggested that border security and compassion are not mutually exclusive. He was equally evasive on abortion, managing to squeeze in the favorite Democrat talking point that it is health care and claiming only that he supports the now-defunct standard set by Roe v. Wade. He avoided being pinned down on abortion limits. In what will be the only Pennsylvania Senate debate, both candidates needed to stake out their respective positions on these subjects. Oz did so, about as effectively as any politician does in such an arena. Fetterman, by contrast, seemed unwilling to do the same.
Meanwhile, the debate moderators queried Mehmet Oz about former President Donald Trump, as was inevitable. Dr. Oz said that he will back whichever Republican wins the 2024 presidential nomination. He fended off discussion of Trump’s current legal wrangles with a generic expression of confidence in the legal system.
Fractured by Fracking
The biggest stumble of the evening was sparked by one of the top issues for Pennsylvanians, energy production and fracking. Fetterman claimed that he had “always supported fracking.” The candidate had suddenly created quite a problem for himself, as moderators pointed out that, during a 2018 interview, Fetterman gave a very direct response to an inquiry about the process. “I don’t support fracking at all,” he told his interviewer, Joy Marie Mann. “I never have.” When confronted with his own quote, Fetterman was silent for a full five seconds before haltingly responding, “I … I do support fracking and I don’t … I don’t … I support fracking and I stand … and I do support fracking.” On Twitter, the Republican National Committee was quick to point out that in 2016, then-Mayor (of Braddock, PA) Fetterman signed a pledge to back a statewide moratorium on fracking and to advocate for federal “Keep it in the Ground” legislation.
Understandably, the debate could not exclude a question about Fetterman’s health. When pressed by one of the moderators on whether he would be willing to produce his medical records, the Democrat noted only that a doctor had cleared him as being capable of performing his duties as an elected official.
All eyes are on two or three Senate races, across the country, that could determine which party leads the upper chamber in the 118th Congress. Of course, one or two less prominent seats might also change hands unexpectedly in the current climate. But, still, Democrat voters in Pennsylvania might decide the issue, depending on how many are willing to overlook Fetterman’s obvious problems with communication to ensure their party retains the majority, such as it is. Assume, for a moment, that one puts aside the political issues and the Democratic candidate’s credibility problem, specifically regarding fracking. Still, the Pennsylvania Senate debate may have come as a shock to many voters who were perhaps previously unaware of the true extent of John Fetterman’s mental and physical challenges.