The two candidates met for the first time just moments before their only debate, and with control of the U.S. Senate hinging on which one of them wins the open seat in Pennsylvania, they each came out swinging as soon as they had the chance.
It wasn’t pretty.
Democrat John Fetterman was first. Asked about his political experience to be a senator, he said, “I’m running to serve Pennsylvania,” arguing that his Republican opponent, the celebrity Dr. Mehmet Oz is “running to buy Pennsylvania.” He then coined “the Oz Rule,” which he simply defined as, “He’s lying.”
Then Fetterman acknowledged “the elephant in the room,” saying “I’ve had a stroke. He’ll never let me forget that.”
Then it was Oz’s turn. “I want to bring civility, balance… bring us together. John Fetterman takes everything to an extreme, and those extreme positions hurt us all,” Oz said. The Republican then accused Fetterman of trying to get as many convicted murders out of jail as he can. “I want Washington to be civil again,” Oz declared, seemingly without irony.
Fetterman has led in every recent poll, but his lead has been shrinking and his health has become a prominent campaign issue, since he still refuses to release medical records related to the serious stroke that he suffered in May. His primary care physician released a letter asserting he has no work-related restrictions, but Tuesday night’s debate was the first sustained look voters had of him in a high-pressure setting.
At the Fetterman campaign’s request, monitors were set up behind the moderators where he could see the questions printed out as they were spoken along with Oz’s responses. That accounted for some small delays, but the overall impression of Fetterman is someone still struggling to speak with greater fluidity. His answers were halting, but he made no game-changing mistakes, and the voters in Pennsylvania seem inclined to accept that he will be fully recovered if elected.
For Fetterman, this was Pass/Fail, and for Oz, it was the one chance he had to ding his opponent with all he had to label him too radical and extreme for Pennsylvania.
Where Fetterman was more subdued, rarely speaking out of turn, Oz jumped in every chance he got, tying Fetterman to democratic socialist Sen. Bernie Sanders, and claiming he would raise taxes, “mine and yours,” while accusing him of not paying his own taxes 67 times. (That last part was a head-scratcher for those who don’t closely follow the campaign, and in his rebuttal, Fetterman murmured something about helping two students pay their bills, saying it was all about nonprofit, an inadequate and slow response.)
The debate was a fast-paced hour with rapid-fire questions allowing 60-second responses and 30-second rebuttals, a formula that invites practiced talking points. At times, it seemed a lot like Jeopardy, with barely any time for substantive debate on major issues like the economy and inflation, China, abortion, the minimum wage, and fracking.
Fracking is always a big issue in Pennsylvania because it is the state’s livelihood—a huge producer of jobs and revenue—and both candidates have adjusted their positions to be politically palatable. In 2014, Oz said fracking needs more studies about its impact on health—though now he doesn’t mention any reservations with fracking. Fetterman once called fracking “a stain on Pennsylvania,” but now says he supports it for energy independence and not being held hostage by Russia.
Fetterman got the upper hand on China by pointing out that Oz’s merchandise is made in China, and he also scored on raising the minimum wage. It’s only $7.25, the federal minimum, in Pennsylvania. Even comparatively poor West Virginia is higher at $8.25. Oz claimed he wants the minimum wage “as high as it can go,” but through market forces, which he describes as “unleashing” the state’s energy resources.
Asked about his fitness to serve and whether he would pledge to release his full medical records, Fetterman said, “For me, transparency is showing up.” He cited the big crowds he is seeing and made it clear he would not release his medical records.
Oz was asked about the unproven and potentially dangerous treatments that he promoted and that were advertised on his long running television show. He said his show “provided high quality information that empowered people,” and then pivoted to slamming Fetterman for agreeing with Bernie Sanders on socialized medicine.
Asked if he or his company made a profit from promoting these products, Oz said, “It was a show—this is a show—people can run commercials.”
Fetterman pounced, “It’s the Oz Rule, he’s on TV and he’s lying.”
Closing statements brought the hour to a merciful close with Fetterman saying once again, “I would just like to say that my campaign is all about fighting for everyone in Pennsylvania that ever got knocked down and had to get back up.”
Oz said, “I’m a surgeon, a doctor, and I listen to your problems.” He said he worries about fentanyl and families that can’t go outside “because of the leftist policies of John Fetterman.”
In the end, the debate did not turn on the policies that each candidate in his respective party represents. It was in the displays of character and glimpses into the man who might be the difference in a closely divided Senate.
“Are you unhappy with where America is heading? I am, and if you are, I’m your candidate for change,” said Oz. That is the Republican message writ large—that Americans should be afraid. Though he didn’t say it explicitly, Fetterman advocated for Americans to not be afraid—of going broke if a family member gets sick, of being unable to get an abortion, and of being unable to earn a living wage.
If Republicans like Oz are going to campaign on terrifying Americans, Democrats like Fetterman ought to counter that they can help alleviate millions of vulnerable Americans’ deepest fear—losing everything and being impoverished, in the richest country in the world.