John Fetterman must debate and let Pennsylvania decide if he’s up to the job


John Fetterman has been in elected politics for nearly 20 years and last spring was on the cusp of taking the Democratic nomination in a very winnable Pennsylvania Senate race, the political opportunity of a lifetime. 

Then he suffered a stroke. He won the nomination anyway — while in the hospital and on the same day he had a roughly three-hour operation to implant a defibrillator.

For Fetterman to have experienced a life-threatening, debilitating health event as he closed in on achieving a long-held ambition — he’d run in and lost a Senate primary in 2016 — was a terrible misfortune. Everyone of good will should wish him a full and rapid recovery and years of good health ahead.

He is not fully recovered, though. There is no doubt his health status is an entirely legitimate issue and should be wholly litigated before Pennsylvania voters choose between Fetterman and his Republican opponent, the TV doctor Mehmet Oz.

Fetterman, a former mayor and the current lieutenant governor whose left-wing politics, mountainous size and sartorial informality have made him a media sensation, has been scarce on the campaign trail. In a brief rally in Pittsburgh a couple of weeks ago, he at times painfully lost his way trying to deliver his riffs. 

Pennsylvania Lieutenant Governor and U.S. Senate candidate John Fetterman
The Senate candidate suffered from a stroke earlier this year.
Reuters/Elizabeth Frantz

The meandering isn’t his fault, of course — it’s a symptom of his condition. Fetterman still has trouble speaking and has used closed captioning to help understand what media interviewers are saying to him over Zoom.

This is such a concern because talking (and listening) constitutes much of the job of a US senator, whether in committee hearings, on the Senate floor, in media interviews or with constituents. If his condition is anything like it is today, Fetterman would have trouble operating effectively in the Senate.

Oz has been pestering Fetterman to agree to debates, which are a pretty good proxy for the kind of performance that a senator has to be routinely capable of. Oz has agreed to five invitations from various media outlets, and Fetterman none.

His reluctance to agree to what are standard events in any high-profile campaign, and quite valuable ones for voters, is telling. It doesn’t mean the Oz campaign has to be witless and cruel about it. One of the sarcastic concessions it made to Fetterman in the back-and-forth about debating was to say it’d be happy to “pay for any additional medical personnel he might need to have on standby.”

Lines like that have allowed Fetterman to play the victim, even though his campaign, in lieu of its candidate being out on the trail, has relied heavily on mockery of Oz on social media. 

The debate over debates is beginning to have an impact. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette just editorialized, “Voters have a right to know whether their prospective senator can do the job — including handling the give-and-take of a vigorous debate.” 

Supporters surround John Fetterman
Supporters surround Fetterman during a Labor Day parade in downtown Pittsburgh on Sept. 5, 2022.
AP/Steve Mellon

Indeed, Fetterman should have to show and not tell. It is a universal law of politics that elected officials and candidates who are ailing lie about their health or at the very least shade the truth. Fetterman didn’t tell anyone he had been diagnosed with atrial fibrillation in 2017, and he and his team initially minimized the severity of his stroke and have been overly optimistic about his recovery.

Fetterman’s campaign was going to test the proposition that Bernie Sanders-style progressivism becomes more appealing when the vessel is a 6-foot-8 man with a shaved head and goatee who habitually wears hoodies — he looks more like a stevedore than a senator. 

The Pennsylvania race would be much more edifying if it were a debate about the underlying issues, including Fetterman’s fashionable anti-incarceration views. First, though, it has to be established that the Democrat can debate. That he’s in this position at all isn’t fair, but he can’t sidestep elemental questions about his fitness to serve.

Twitter: @RichLowry


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