John Fetterman’s fateful debate

The entire Jenga-block tower of the John Fetterman campaign came crashing down last night, as it became painfully, abundantly clear that the Democratic Senate candidate in Pennsylvania is still suffering severe effects of his stroke, and the past few months of the candidate’s making ten-to-twelve-minute appearances on the stump have been an elaborate effort to hide those lingering effects. The issue isn’t the stroke; the issue is the dishonesty — and for Pennsylvania Democrats, this is an entirely self-inflicted wound. If the state party had wanted to substitute one of Fetterman’s primary rivals, Representative Conor Lamb or state representative Malcolm Kenyatta, it could have done so.

Fetterman’s Fateful Debate

Pennsylvanians will not have a problem with John Fetterman because he had a stroke. They will have a problem with John Fetterman because he, his wife, his campaign, and his party were not honest with the state’s voters about his true condition and recovery until it could no longer be hidden last night. As I wrote yesterday, “Delivering a version of your stump speech before an adoring crowd is different, and easier, than answering questions with time limits.”

When Pennsylvania Democrats insist that a candidate who suffered a life-threatening stroke in May is recovering well and “has no work restrictions and can work full duty in public office,” that candidate must look and sound fine to prove they’re telling the truth. Last night, in the lone debate in the Pennsylvania Senate race, John Fetterman looked and sounded very, very far from fine. But you can judge for yourself by watching the whole debate here.

I expected Fetterman’s debate performance to be a Rorschach test, with Democrats insisting that he was fine and hand-waving away any problems, and Republicans pointing to every verbal misstep, pause, or oddly worded answer. But by the end of the hour, there was little debate, no pun intended. John Fetterman’s ability to hear, understand, process information, and speak appears to still be severely impacted by his stroke. 

Perhaps the worst moment of the night came when one of the moderators asked him about a statement he made in 2018 opposing fracking, and how he could square that past stance with his current claim that he always supported fracking. After a long pause, presumably from reading the moderator’s question from the monitor, Fetterman said, “I, I, I do support fracking and . . .” and then for a moment, Fetterman’s head shook, and his mouth moved, but no words came out. Then he picked up again: “I don’t . . . I don’t. I support fracking, and I stand, and I do support fracking.” 

With everyone watching likely mortified and embarrassed to watch Fetterman struggle to finish the sentence, the moderator mercifully moved on to the next question.

Joe Scarborough: “John Fetterman’s ability to communicate is seriously impaired. Pennsylvania voters will be talking about this obvious fact even if many in the media will not.”

Charlotte Alter, senior correspondent for Time magazine: “I spoke to Fetterman recently, and I expected him to be very bad tonight. But he was much, much worse than I expected (and much worse than in our one-on-one conversation.)”

Politico: “John Fetterman and Mehmet Oz sparred over abortion, fracking and other hot-button issues during their Senate debate Tuesday night, with the Democrat who suffered a stroke more than five months ago struggling at times to effectively communicate — missing words, pausing awkwardly and speaking haltingly.” Their Playbook newsletter’s first line this morning: “John Fetterman struggled to effectively communicate during his one and only Senate debate with Mehmet Oz Tuesday in Harrisburg. . . . Fetterman failed to meet even the low expectations his own campaign set for him Monday in a memo that predicted ‘awkward pauses, missing some words, and mushing other words together” as well as “temporary miscommunications at times.’”

An even more devastating assessment came a few lines farther down: “The plain fact is that Fetterman was not capable of debating Oz.”


Multiple sources wondered why Fetterman agreed to debate when he clearly wasn’t ready. Fetterman struggled at times to respond to the moderators’ questions, even with the assistance of a closed captioning device. “Why the hell did Fetterman agree to this?” one Democratic lawmaker and Fetterman backer told Axios. “This will obviously raise more questions than answers about John’s health.”

The Washington Post’s Aaron Blake:

It was a rough night. . . . Fetterman was halting, in keeping with his recent public performances, including an NBC News interview. He began by saying ‘Good night,’ rather than ‘Good evening.’ He often started a thought and shifted course without finishing it. He used the wrong words. He mostly tried to play it safe by sticking to boilerplate issue positions rather than going in-depth on policies. When it came to his health, he was given two chances to commit to releasing fuller medical records, and he demurred both times, arguing that his presence and his doctors’ say-so should be good enough for voters.

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:

The former Braddock mayor and current lieutenant governor spoke haltingly at times, had difficulty stringing words together and mispronounced words in some instances during the hour-long, rapid-fire debate. Mr. Fetterman also said he wouldn’t release his full medical records for the sake of transparency, as Mr. Oz and other Republicans have demanded.


The Fetterman campaign went to great lengths to avoid debating — until the criticism from editorial boards, the Oz campaign and others became too untenable to keep resisting. After watching the debate in Harrisburg, even though Fetterman’s speech has shown signs of considerable improvement with every passing week since his May stroke, it’s an open question whether it was a wise decision to put him on the stage with Oz. It was, at many points, difficult to watch. Most, if not all, Democrats will almost certainly give him the benefit of the doubt, but it’s an open question whether voters will.

You may recall Chris Stirewalt from his old Fox News days, or his current work over at The Dispatch. He was in the studio as an analyst for NewsNation last night, and I think he spoke for many when he articulated a sense of anger at the people around John Fetterman:

“My heart really went out to John Fetterman as he struggled, watching as he tried to answer that question about his flip flop on fracking was heartbreaking,” Stirewalt said.

As he continued watching the debate, Stirewalt said he felt it was “irresponsible” for Democrats and Fetterman’s family to allow him to proceed in the general election.

“Democrats had another candidate. They had Conor Lamb, a congressman from western Pennsylvania, who I promise would be ahead in this race. They insisted that Fetterman had to march on. He had the stroke before the primary, that he had to stay in the primary, that he had to go through and do this. What made it even sadder for me was that the argument behind Fetterman’s whole candidacy was that Conor Lamb was too moderate, too squishy, not going to stand up for hardcore progressive principles. I watched John Fetterman struggle to try to flip flop,” Stirewalt said.

And this isn’t even getting to the assessments of the debate from Rich, Charlie, or Michael Brendan Dougherty.

Considering Fetterman’s struggling debate performance, what are we to make of that letter from Dr. Clifford Chen declaring that, “Overall, Lt. Gov. Fetterman is well and shows strong commitment to maintaining good fitness and health practices. He has no work restrictions and can work full duty in public office”? Is it that how a person looks in a doctor’s office — taking deep breaths and having their blood pressure measured — doesn’t reflect how they’ll look and sound on a debate stage, attempting to answer questions and lay out a policy agenda?

Allow me to offer a controversial theory: A lot of Democratic Party candidates and strategists have bad judgment because they’ve grown used to a usually friendly media bailing them out of the consequences of their bad decisions. In light of last night, the decision-making of Fetterman and his campaign seems absurd — as MBD aptly summarized, “John Fetterman should not have been on a debate stage tonight. He should be at home, recovering from his stroke.”

What we’re seeing in Pennsylvania is uncomfortably close to the concept of Weekend at Bernie’s, which was funny because it was imaginary; a real-life attempt to fool people into believing a corpse is alive would be horrifyingly macabre. Remember, Fetterman had his stroke the Friday before the primary election, and his first statement, issued Sunday, declared that, “The good news is I’m feeling much better, and the doctors tell me I didn’t suffer any cognitive damage. I’m well on my way to a full recovery.” His campaign has been lying about how well his recovery was going the whole time.

A campaign does not attempt to fool people into believing that a severe-stroke victim is fine unless it’s convinced that the overwhelming majority of media in the state will be its ally and abandon their traditional role as watchdogs. The people around Fetterman are off their rockers, stupid, or both.

Oh, by the way, remember last week, when some guy in the Washington Post pointed out that Democrats had their own share of subpar candidates who were likely to blow winnable races? Do Pennsylvania Democrats look wise for sticking with Fetterman right now, instead of switching to either of Fetterman’s rivals in the primary — Representative Conor Lamb or state representative Malcolm Kenyatta? How about Arizona gubernatorial candidate Katie Hobbs? Does she look shrewd for refusing to debate GOP rival Kari Lake? Does Wisconsin’s lieutenant governor Mandela Barnes look like a sensible choice to run for Senate in a purple-ish state in a GOP wave year? Does running Beto O’Rourke and Stacey Abrams for governor in southern, GOP-leaning states again look astute, or are they sucking up grassroots donation money that could be more wisely spent elsewhere?

I don’t know that Democratic candidates or campaign strategists consciously think, “Oh, we’ll be fine, the media is on our side and will cover for us.” I think they just get used to having the consequences of every mistake and dumb decision mitigated by generous media coverage. They walk around with the wind constantly at their backs, convinced that they are wiser and better at their jobs than they really are. And when that wind at their backs stops blowing, they’re stunned — suddenly everything is much harder.

Lamb and Kenyatta should be spitting hot fire at the Pennsylvania state Democratic Party this morning.

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