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The real takeaway from the Oz-Fetterman debate

Fixating on speech distracts from the looming political emergency.

If you watched the debate Tuesday night between Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. John Fetterman and celebrity doctor Mehmet Oz, it was hard to ignore one major point of contrast between the two: how they communicated.

Oz is a seasoned television host who knows how to speak with polish in front of a camera. Fetterman has an I’m-just-a-normal-dude-in-a-bar conversational style of speech, which endears him to much of the public but also doesn’t always lend itself to snappy debate banter. On top of that, it was evident that Fetterman’s challenges with processing spoken language — a result of a stroke he suffered in May — made it hard for him at times to select and articulate words as he made his case for why he should be Pennsylvania’s next U.S. senator. While medical experts say there’s no reason to doubt Fetterman’s cognitive capacity, and while his overall points were intelligible, it was at times genuinely difficult to understand some of his sentences.

The glaring difference was perhaps most obvious on the issue of abortion.

In all likelihood this difference in oratorical styles is going to be at the center of pundit analyses of how the debate went, not just on the right, but likely across centrist media, as well. But it shouldn’t be.

The core distinction at the debate was that Fetterman is a progressive with sound ideas about what’s needed to make the country better, while Oz is an extremist and a political opportunist who has shape-shifted into a MAGA supporter to win Pennsylvania.

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The glaring difference was perhaps most obvious on the issue of abortion. Fetterman clearly declared support of Roe v. Wade and the idea of abortion as a right that must not be infringed upon.

"I want to look into the face of every woman in Pennsylvania. You know, if you believe that the choice of your reproductive freedom belongs with Dr. Oz, then you have a choice," Fetterman said. "But if you believe that the choice for abortion belongs between you and your doctor, that's what I'd fight for."

By contrast, Oz made extreme statements. He said he would leave the issue of abortion up to "women, doctors, local political leaders, letting the democracy that's always allowed our nation to thrive to put the best ideas forward so states can decide for themselves." (Emphasis mine.) He tried to casually describe abortion as a state issue rather than a federal one — but his formulation showcased how radically intrusive it is to have lawmakers intervening in the issue based on the local political winds.

And Oz was elusive about his support for radical anti-abortion legislation. He refused to distance himself from a draconian bill from Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina that would ban abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy everywhere in America. Making all this even worse is that Oz’s extreme position is a politically expedient flip-flop from a pro-choice position he held a few years ago.

These differences aren’t academic. In the wake of the overturning of Roe v. Wade, Democrats are seeking to enshrine abortion rights through federal legislation, while Republicans are considering measures to weaken them even more. Whether Fetterman or Oz makes it into the Senate in November will have a tangible effect on the likelihood of either outcome in a hyper-competitive year for the Senate, where control of the chamber will likely come down to just a couple of races.

On other issues, too, Fetterman took reasonable positions while Oz took extreme ones or avoided taking any clear stances at all. Asked about foreign policy threats, Fetterman correctly identified China as having a potentially dangerous rivalry with the U.S., while Oz spread bizarre disinformation about the Iran nuclear deal. On immigration, Fetterman called for compassionate immigration reform and decried cruel stunts like sending asylum-seeking refugees in buses to Martha’s Vineyard; Oz, meanwhile, decided that the “humanitarian crisis” surrounding immigration could be mitigated only by stricter enforcement of immigration laws. While Fetterman called for the federal minimum wage to be raised to $15 an hour on the basis that workers deserved to have living wages, Oz offered up a confusing word salad about how the market was driving up the wage to $15 an hour anyway. To cap it all off, Oz (unsurprisingly) said he would support Donald Trump for the presidency again if he won the Republican nomination.

Throughout the debate, Oz spoke more quickly and with greater force. He also constantly refused to take positions as clearly as Fetterman, and the positions he did stake out should worry Pennsylvanians for their extremism and alignment with Trump’s authoritarian movement.

The choice is up to Pennsylvania voters. But one hopes Fetterman’s mission of fighting “for anyone in Pennsylvania that ever got knocked down that had to get back up again” resonates more than Oz’s huckster right-wing extremism.