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Fetterman and Oz debate: Pennsylvania Senate candidates talk economy, abortion

Read takeaways from the only debate between Pennsylvania’s Democratic lieutenant governor and the Republican celebrity doctor before the midterm elections.

Democrat John Fetterman and Republican Mehmet Oz participated in their first and only debate tonight ahead of Pennsylvania’s U.S. Senate election on Nov. 8.

Fetterman, the state’s lieutenant governor, and Oz, best known as celebrity TV doctor “Dr. Oz,” are seeking to fill the seat left vacant by GOP Sen. Pat Toomey, who is not seeking re-election.

Key highlights:

Our contributors today were MSNBC Daily editors Hayes Brown and Zeeshan Aleem; MSNBC Daily columnist Liz Plank; and Cara Reedy, director of the Disabled Journalists Association.

Different kinds of clarity

The closing statements from Fetterman and Oz were almost inversions of each other. While Fetterman spoke slowly and seemed to have trouble forming some sentences, the overarching philosophy and premise of his candidacy were extremely clear in his closing remarks: “My campaign is all about fighting for anyone in Pennsylvania that ever got knocked down that had to get back up again; I’m also fighting for any forgotten community.” He described how his career, which began as a GED instructor, illustrated his adherence to that commitment. 

Meanwhile, Oz spoke with ease and speed. But he didn’t have a comparable mission statement. He likened his candidacy to an extension of his listening skills as a surgeon, and promised to fight inflation, crime, illegal immigration. He listed a catalog of Trump-wing Republican positions, and ultimately he framed himself as the “candidate for change.” But there wasn’t a succinct summary of his ethos.

The candidates for governor in Pennsylvania — Democrat John Fetterman (left) and Republican Mehmet Oz — held their first and only debate Tuesday night.
The candidates for governor in Pennsylvania — Democrat John Fetterman (left) and Republican Mehmet Oz — held their first and only debate Tuesday night. Courtesy NewsNation

Debate proves U.S. political races are far from accessible

If it wasn’t clear that the U.S. electoral system is still not accessible to people with disabilities, tonight was proof. While disabled people have a desire to run, they remain one of the most underrepresented populations in both state and federal government.

The pace and setting of a traditional debate like the one we witnessed in Pennsylvania tonight, even with closed captioning, was just not favorable to a candidate who has any kind of processing difficulties.

If we want to see more lawmakers with disabilities, we need to rethink the way we elect them. That means reimagining what a campaign looks like and even how a candidate should sound. No matter who ends up in the Senate, this race should be a learning opportunity for us to reflect on these pivotal questions of inclusivity and who gets to participate in democracy.

Missed opportunity to explain auditory processing disorder

Cara Reedy

Oz spent a lot of time throwing ableist digs at Fetterman. I wish auditory processing disorder had been clearly defined early on in the debate. Most people don’t understand what that means. It means that your brain doesn’t hear sounds in the same way. It doesn’t mean that the person can’t understand language; that’s why captioning works.

The ADA has been the law of the land for 32 years and captions are a reasonable accommodation for not only auditory processing disorder, but also for people who are hard of hearing and deaf. But captions also mean that there is a delay in answering. The fact that Fetterman was able to read the question and then answer in a reasonable amount of time, shows that accommodations do work and he, like most disabled people, have to work twice as hard for the same outcomes.

Shoutout to the real winners of the debate: the production crew

Too often political debates like tonight’s are more about just the act of saying you held a debate than actually trying to get useful information out of the candidates. That’s definitely how I felt during last week’s matchup in Georgia’s Senate race. But tonight? Tonight my faith in the format was restored just a little.

Meredith has already written about how good the moderation was from WPXI’s Lisa Sylvester and ABC 27’s Dennis Owens. And we’ve touched on the impressive captioning efforts that were required to allow Fetterman to participate. But I think we also need to highlight the research and care that the production team put into the questions put before Oz and Fetterman. When Oz was asked straight up “would you have voted for the gun control bill” that Sen. Pat Toomey, a Republican, helped draft, I was floored. Same for the specificity of asking Fetterman whether there were any limits on abortion that he would support.

These were questions that were designed to yield specific answers, not open-ended ramblings or stock responses. Yes, debates like tonight’s almost always have journalists as moderators — but it’s been a long time since I’ve watched a debate that felt so much like an act of journalism.

Fetterman and Oz answer the most important question of all

Meredith Bennett-Smith

Seeing as this debate was held in Pennsylvania, the moderators saved the most important question for last: Do you support the Pittsburgh Steelers or Philadelphia Eagles? This is a state that takes its NFL fandoms very seriously, after all. (Editor’s note: My dad is from Philadelphia and I am a diehard Eagles fan. Go Birds! The only undefeated team in football!)  

Fetterman, who was the mayor of a Pittsburgh suburb for over a decade, obviously threw his support behind the Black and Gold. Oz chose the Eagles, and even sang a few bars of the team’s fight song for dramatic effect. It remains to be seen whether Philadelphia’s famously loyal (and cynical) Eagles fans are buying it.

Fetterman says he wouldn’t expand the U.S. Supreme Court

Asked whether he would support the expansion of the Supreme Court, Fetterman said that he wouldn’t, bucking what’s become a progressive call-to-arms as the court has swung hard right. There’s nothing in the Constitution that says that the Supreme Court has to be nine justices, and the size has shifted over the centuries before landing on the current makeup. Fetterman said that though he does not agree with the current court’s decisions, he would not want to “change the rules” to add more liberals.

Oz, unsurprisingly, said that he also would not be in favor of expanding the court, but used the question to attack Fetterman’s pledge to reform the filibuster in the Senate. But any move to “bust the filibuster” is “not a dangerously radical move,” as Oz put it. I’m just going to let you go ahead and read some of the (many, many) arguments against the filibuster I’ve made in the last two years rather than explaining here.

Oz bullies Fetterman for missing debates due to stroke

Oz bashed Fetterman for not being able to debate him in the immediate aftermath of his stroke, omitting the fact that Fetterman's health would not permit it.

Despite Fetterman showing up and working twice as hard to process the question with captions, Oz went on to dismiss his opponent’s ability to understand him. In a rebuttal to Fetterman’s point on education policy, Oz said, “Obviously I wasn’t clear enough for you to understand this.”

Fetterman’s immigration zinger

Fetterman landed a great zinger on the GOP’s cruel immigration stunt: “I don’t ever recall in the Statue of Liberty did they say, you know, ‘Take our tired huddled masses and put them on a bus and use cheap political stunts about them.’ I believe we have to develop a comprehensive and bipartisan solution for immigration.”

Fetterman’s reference to stunts by Republican pols like Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis sending asylum-seeking migrants to Martha’s Vineyard underscores how the GOP has taken a turn toward the sadistic on immigration activism — and frames it as anti-American.

Oz just made up a truly weird thing about the Iran nuclear deal

The candidates were asked what the greatest foreign threat the U.S. faces is. Fetterman gave what has become a fairly stock answer — “China” — while Oz said the biggest threat is actually America not projecting strength. And in support of that claim, he brought up … the Iran nuclear deal, which the Trump administration withdrew from in 2018

Oz claimed that the deal was made in the pursuit of buying oil from Iran — while leaving Iran with the ability to detonate a nuclear weapon — instead of supporting American energy independence. There are like 12 things wrong with that, not least of which being that there was nothing in the 2015 deal with Iran and other world powers that would have let the U.S. buy Iranian oil. It also wouldn’t have allowed Iran to enrich uranium enough to produce a nuclear weapon, but honestly I’m still stuck on the oil thing.

The most generous explanation I can come up with is that more Iranian oil on the market would bring down global oil prices, but I really can’t tell if that’s what he meant.

Oz thinks Trump’s legal issues will ‘work themselves out’

Meredith Bennett-Smith

Oz says his goal if elected will be to unite, not divide. But he also says he will support whichever presidential candidate the GOP puts up in 2024, including former President Donald Trump. When asked what he thinks about Trump’s mounting and ongoing legal battles, Oz said he hadn’t been following them “closely” but was confident they’d “work themselves out.”

Fetterman fracking flip-flop

Moderators asked the candidates about fracking, a technology that extracts natural gas and oil from the ground. It's a key issue for voters, especially those in Western Pennsylvania, which has large energy reserves.

Both Oz and Fetterman enthusiastically pledged their support for fracking. It's a relatively new stance for Fetterman who said in 2018 that he would "never" support it.

When pressed about his past opposition to fracking, Fetterman responded: "I do support fracking ... and I support fracking, and I stand, and I do support fracking."

Oz plays down his anti-abortion stance

When pressed on the issue of abortion rights, Oz skirted his position, while declaring he wouldn’t support Sen. Lindsey Graham’s proposed federal ban on abortion. Oz insisted he would leave the decision to the states, leaving out the fact that without Roe, it could be illegal in a state like Pennsylvania.

“You roll with Doug Mastriano,” Fetterman interjected, in an attempt to draw attention to the radical anti-abortion stance that Oz previously took on the campaign trail.

Oz went on to accuse Fetterman of supporting abortion “on the delivery table,” a false claim given that most pregnancies that are terminated at this advanced stage are due to fetal anomalies or maternal life endangerment.

Fetterman takes a strong position on the minimum wage

Asked about whether he’d support raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour, Fetterman clearly answered that he did. That’s a strong position, because raising the minimum wage is one of those rare policy issues that consistently garners bipartisan support even though it is generally championed by the left.

Oz was more slippery on the issue, declining to clarify where he felt the federal minimum wage should be. Instead, he talked about raising it, but in evasive terms via talking about supporting small businesses and relying on “market forces.”

Oz's ableist dig

Cara Reedy

Oz threw a dig admonishing Fetterman for not agreeing to more debates after experiencing a stroke in May. "In his primary debate, when he was still debating," Oz said at one point.

Oz knows or should know as a physician that an auditory processing disorder would make this format difficult for Fetterman. It was an ableist dig that signals to other disabled people that accommodations and time to recover from a medical event should mean you shouldn’t run for political office.

Oz was asked about his show’s quackery. He did not give an answer

The moderators straight up asked Oz about the many untested and unproven claims that were made on his show. That includes several “miracle” weight loss methods that guests — who stood to profit — touted on his show. He was famously raked over the coals for the claims on his show in the U.S. Senate.

Oz danced around the issue tonight, saying that he gave people a choice and gave them options for their medical care. “I ruffled a lot of feathers on my show because I told people the truth, and I’ll do the same thing as a senator,” Oz said.

Fetterman is really trying to make the ‘Oz rule’ happen

Meredith Bennett-Smith

Fetterman has a clear plan of attack during this debate, and that is to paint his rival as a dishonest huckster. Over and over again, in both answers and rebuttals, Fetterman has referenced or opened with the “Oz rule,” arguing that if his opponent is on TV, he’s lying.

Fetterman’s opener was clear and messy at the same time

In Fetterman’s opening statement, he drew a clear contrast between how he sees himself vs Oz: He said he sought to “serve” Pennsylvania, while Oz sought to “use” it, and immediately took aim at Oz’s status as an ultra-wealthy celebrity.

It was a clear, punchy line that spoke to Fetterman's strengths in the race, but it was marred by his awkward preceding sentence: “Hi. Good night everyone.” Fetterman likely sought to say “good evening,” but it appears he misspoke, perhaps due to his speech processing issues related to his stroke recovery.

This is what good moderation looks like

Meredith Bennett-Smith

As the debate gets underway, the two moderators — WPXI’s Lisa Sylvester and ABC 27’s Dennis Owens — are doing a very good job, both with the questions asked and with follow-ups. When Oz tried to pull a little bait-and-switch on a question about raising the minimum wage, the moderators politely but clearly pushed back and clarified. We’ve certainly seen the impact that bad moderators can have on political debates in the past. So far, this is a strong example of how to moderate effectively.

Oz’s claim that Fetterman is 'releasing murderers' is … wrong

One of Fetterman’s jobs as the lieutenant governor is to chair the state’s Board of Pardons. In that role, he’s made a major push to commute life sentences for people who have not committed violent crimes. That includes people convicted of second-degree murder which “applies when someone dies related to a felony,” or — importantly — accomplices to felonies.

It’s those people that Fetterman has been advocating releasing — and Oz has been attacking Fetterman over. You can read more about the extent of how Oz has twisted the truth in the name of fear-mongering here and here.

This format is not as accessible as it should be for Fetterman

Cara Reedy

Live closed captioning means that there are captioners transcribing the debate as it happens. It is much more accurate than auto-captioning. But this whole format is not accessible for Fetterman.

Yes, there is captioning, but to process with an auditory processing disorder is a monumental hurdle. It shouldn’t disqualify him, but maybe we should be looking at a different format for debates to make it more accessible to disabled people.

Protestors want Oz to address Armenian genocide

Armenian Americans have been trying to get Oz, who was born in Turkey, to acknowledge the Armenian genocide — and are protesting outside tonight’s debate to try to force the issue. The Ottoman Empire, the forerunner of modern-day Turkey, killed an estimated 1.5 million Armenians in the World War I-era ethnic cleansing.

In a statement to The Philadelphia Inquirer last week, Oz’s communications director said in a statement that the candidate “opposes genocide and the murder of innocent people in all forms” — but did not explicitly say whether Oz acknowledges the Armenian genocide in particular.

“Mehmet Oz has been given ample opportunity to affirm that the Armenian Genocide happened, and who perpetrated it,” tweeted Michigan state Rep. Mari Manoogian, who is an Armenian American. “Instead he’s chosen to scapegoat his opponent at every turn. Genocide deniers have no place in the U.S. Senate.”

And we're off!

The 60-minute debate kicks off with the two moderators — WPXI's Lisa Sylvester and ABC 27's Dennis Owens — explaining the closed captioning system, which was requested by Fetterman. Both candidates will be able to see the screens.

There is no live audience tonight, which will rule out any chances of booing or cheering we've seen at other debates this election cycle.

The important abortion rights fact Fetterman should highlight

One of Fetterman’s strongest advantages over Oz is his stance on abortion. Polls are showing that Pennsylvania voters are prioritizing abortion as a top issue, but as national polls start trending towards the economy and crime becoming more salient, he should be linking those issues to bodily autonomy.

After all, abortion bans cost local economies $105 billion because they push women out of the workforce, so Fetterman should be emphasizing the link between the economy and reproductive rights.

Early in the race, Oz called abortion “murder” at any stage of pregnancy and Fetterman should challenge his opponent on what that emotional statement means in terms of policy for women and girls.

It’s (still) the economy, stupid

Like so many voters across the country, Pennsylvanians rank concerns about the economy as the most important issue on their minds these days. As a Democrat, Fetterman faces the tricky task of defending his party’s economic policy accomplishments while sounding empathetic and attentive to the real pain caused by soaring prices.

Even though rising gas prices aren’t President Joe Biden’s fault, Fetterman would be wise to avoid deflecting responsibility in the manner of Biden’s line on “Putin’s price hike.” Instead, he should provide clear proposals for dealing with inflation and measures that could offset the pain it’s causing, like in his previous calls for a stimulus check to help deal with gas prices.

Oz hasn’t always championed affordable food

Shawn Cox

A video recently surfaced of Oz making a case for high food prices.

“If we did not subsidize the food in this country, a pound of meat would cost us $90 and you wouldn’t be eating a lot of it,” he says in the 2009 clip from an appearance at the Aspen Institute. 

Writing for The ReidOut Blog, Ja’han Jones called the line of thinking “a wildly elitist proposal that no candidate should ever want leaked, let alone this close to Election Day.” 

He added:

“Of course, it wouldn’t be as easy to dunk on Oz for his remarks if he hadn’t made high food costs — and his self-proclaimed sympathy over them — so central to his campaign. The most memorable moment he has mustered so far was a widely mocked video he posted of himself waltzing through a grocery store complaining about the cost of assembling a crudité (a veggie plate).”

Read Ja’han’s full story below.

Third-party candidate throws his support to Fetterman

Fetterman and Oz aren’t alone on the ballot in Pennsylvania — but independent candidate Everett Stern is telling his supporters to send their votes over Fetterman’s way.

“I am polling around 3% which places Democracy at risk,” Stern tweeted on Tuesday, hours before the debate. “In the interest of protecting the United States I am dropping out of the U.S Senate Race in PA. I fully endorse John Fetterman.”

Stern told NBC News’ Sahil Kapur that he doesn’t want to play “spoiler” in the race: “I want to make sure democracy doesn’t fail.” According to the Pennsylvania Department of State’s website, it looks like Stern may have missed the deadline to withdraw his name from the ballot. But if voters were planning on voting for Stern already, it feels likely that his message will reach them.

What Fetterman should say about captions tonight

Cara Reedy

Tonight, I’m hoping Fetterman will address the negative framing around his use of closed captioning. The Americans with Disability Act has been in effect for more than 30 years — and yet workplaces are still discriminating based on people’s needs for accommodations. The law states a reasonable accommodation is a modification or adjustment to a job, the work environment or the way things are usually done during the hiring process.

Captions are a reasonable accommodation. It would be great if Fetterman could address it head on as a legal issue rather than trying to prove that he is fit. His doctor has already cleared him for work.

Will this endorsement help pave the way for a Fetterman victory?

The editorial board of Pennsylvania’s largest newspaper, The Philadelphia Inquirer, endorsed Fetterman on Oct. 16. The paper, which has consistently endorsed Democratic candidates, called out Oz’s apparent opportunism, given his tendency to flip-flop on political positions. 

The Inquirer’s editorial board wrote:

“Fetterman knows what his values are and is capable of communicating them. The same cannot be said for his opponent, Mehmet Oz, a man wholly unprepared to be Pennsylvania’s U.S. senator. … Oz’s resumé is also notably devoid of any significant record of public service. A celebrity doctor who once had his own television program, Oz spent much of his career touting miracle cures.”

Political pundits and news commentators argue about the actual impact of newspaper endorsements — and whether it makes sense for newspapers to continue to write them.

MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” discussed the endorsement’s significance last week. Check out the full video below:

Oz would be the latest (and maybe worst) quack to join the Senate

Back when Oz first announced that he was running for Senate, I figured it was a vanity run that would soon fizzle out. But it got me thinking about what sort of company the former miracle diet hawker would be joining if he actually made it to the halls of the U.S. Capitol.

Well, there have been quite a few medical practitioners elected to Congress — and a lot of them had some pretty wild ideas. Their ranks have skewed toward the GOP in the last few decades, but Oz would stand out as being both among the most talented at actually practicing medicine and the most willing to say things that clearly go against his training to a vastly bigger audience than most doctors ever have.

Read more about Oz and the Senate’s history of quackery below:

GOP obsesses over Fetterman's tattoos. Here's what they mean.

Shawn Cox

Joy Reid recently had Fetterman on “The ReidOut,” where she asked about Republican attacks involving his arm tattoos. “They’re essentially trying to sort of thug-ize you,” she said. 

Fetterman responded that he simply has dates tattooed on his right forearm — signifying when someone died violently in Braddock, Pennsylvania, while he was mayor.

“I was at the scene of any single murder as mayor, and it was a deeply personal issue,” he said. “And I ran on that issue, and I was able to stop it for 5½ years.” 

Watch the full video below.

This race offers a key teaching moment about disability

Media portrayal of Fetterman’s recovery from a stroke has been the subject of controversy in recent weeks. Many disability rights advocates have criticized the way in which Fetterman’s opponents and some reporters have highlighted his need for closed captioning during interviews as he deals with auditory processing issues in the aftermath of his stroke. Debate organizers have agreed to allow Fetterman to use closed captioning tonight.

Keep in mind: Reasonable accommodations should not disqualify a candidate.

As Liz Plank wrote for MSNBC Daily earlier this month:

“Disabled Americans have the right to be represented, and most importantly, to work, and that includes working for the U.S. government. An employer wouldn’t be allowed to refuse to hire a person because they have a hearing or speech difference, so why is it acceptable when it comes to holding office?”

Read Liz’s full story below:

Doctor says Fetterman has no work restrictions

Shawn Cox

After Fetterman recently sat down with NBC News and used captioning during the interview, his recovery from a stroke in May took center stage in the race.

Last week, Fetterman’s campaign released a letter from his primary care physician saying the candidate “has no work restrictions and can work full duty in public office.”

Summarizing an Oct. 14 exam, Dr. Clifford Chen said Fetterman “spoke intelligently without cognitive deficits” and continued to “exhibit symptoms of an auditory processing disorder which can come across as hearing difficulty.”

Finally, a chance to focus on the issues (hopefully)

Earlier this year, Fetterman caught the attention of progressives and leftists across the nation because of his effectiveness in acting as a messenger for sweeping progressive policies while appearing like a normal dude you might run into at the gym.

Two things shifted attention away from that point of focus. First, Fetterman experienced a stroke in May, which moved the conversation away from his policies and toward his health status and recovery. Secondly, Fetterman has effectively homed in on the personal qualities of his Trump-backed opponent — such as Oz’s all-too-convenient recent residency in Pennsylvania, and a tendency to call veggie trays “crudités “ — instead of ideological debate.

Tonight is an exciting opportunity to get back to the issues, and for Fetterman to make a fresh case to Pennsylvanians that his vision for the future is a better one.