Fetterman struggled in the debate. But will it matter?
I’m Isaac Saul, and this is Tangle: an independent, nonpartisan, subscriber-supported politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum on the news of the day — then “my take.”
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After resisting it for the last few weeks, I am going to write about Kanye West tomorrow. Why? Because I think there is a lot to learn from Ye, an influential celebrity with significant political sway. And because I think there are a lot of things not being said about his recent comments on politics, Jews, and race that are worth discussing. This will be an unusual Tangle — and hopefully the last time we have to wade into a pop culture story for a little while.
- A jury found Darrell Brooks guilty of killing six people and injuring 60 others when he drove his SUV into a Christmas parade in Waukesha, Wisconsin, last November. (The verdict)
- Former White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows was ordered to testify before the Atlanta special grand jury investigating election interference in 2020. (The order)
- Russian forces carried out nuclear drills yesterday, which they say were previously scheduled. Meanwhile, Putin's top diplomat in the United Kingdom insisted in an interview that the use of nuclear weapons was not on the table. (The rattling)
- Three men accused of supporting a plot to kidnap Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer (D) were convicted of all charges on Wednesday. (The conviction)
- The U.S. economy grew at a 2.6% annualized rate in Q3, surpassing expectations of 2.3% and ending consecutive quarters of negative GDP growth. (The growth)
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The Fetterman-Oz debate. In September, we covered the Pennsylvania Senate race. We’re giving this debate additional coverage for a few reasons: First, it's an open seat and a "toss-up" in polls, which makes the race’s dynamics unique. Second, many pollsters believe the Pennsylvania Senate race could determine which party controls the U.S. Senate. Finally, Pennsylvania is one of the most important swing states in presidential elections, so the result of this contest could not only mirror results nationally in the midterms but perhaps even foreshadow 2024.
This was one of the most anticipated and widely-watched debates of the 2022 midterms for other reasons, too. Fetterman, the Democrat, suffered a stroke in May, just before the primaries. His camp says he is recovering quickly but still experiencing auditory processing issues because of the stroke, which is a common occurrence in such patients. Specialists in stroke recovery say the condition is not indicative of his ability to understand or process information, but more akin to difficulty in hearing. It also manifests itself in his speaking, as he sometimes struggles to put words together, or mixes up conjugations.
Still, the campaign has been cagey about his health. In early June, they revealed that he had installed a defibrillator for a previously undisclosed diagnosis of cardiomyopathy (they had initially claimed it was surgery for the less serious atrial fibrillation). Fetterman's team has declined to release his full health records or brain scans since the stroke, but on October 15, his doctor, Clifford Chen, penned a letter noting that his blood pressure, heart rate, vitals, cholesterol, and liver function were all normal. Dr. Chen also said Fetterman had no cognitive impairment, coordination difficulties, or strength issues, but did acknowledge his auditory processing problems.
Over the last month, Fetterman's public appearances have become more common, including a sit-down interview he gave to NBC News reporter Dasha Burns. In her reporting, Burns noted that he appeared to struggle to understand her in small talk they had before going on camera, a comment that drew cries of "ableism" and led media critics to excoriate her for leaving out the context of his condition.
In that interview, Fetterman used closed captioning in his discussion with Burns, reading off a screen as they spoke. He used the same accommodations during the debate on Monday night. Throughout the debate, his answers were briefly delayed as he read the closed captioning, and he repeatedly misspoke or struggled to articulate responses, including on a question about his change of position on fracking.
Before the debate, his campaign sought to lower expectations, noting in a memo that Oz, a longtime TV celebrity, had a "huge built-in advantage" in public speaking and that debates were not Fetterman's best medium — even before the stroke.
With the intrigue surrounding Fetterman's health swirling, and polls showing the race tightening, the candidates debated abortion rights, crime, fracking, inflation, and other key issues in the midterms so far.
Today, we're going to take a look at some reactions from the right and left, then my take.
What the right is saying.
- Many on the right said the debate made it clear Fetterman wasn't fit for office.
- Some suggested his answers on the issues are proof Democrats have gone astray.
- Others expressed sadness and frustration that Fetterman is still in the race.
The Wall Street Journal editorial board said commentary is mostly about Fetterman's health, but that shouldn't be the sole focus.
"For our money the most telling moment was Mr. Fetterman’s response to a question about his previous opposition to fracking for natural gas... 'I’ve always supported fracking,' Mr. Fetterman said when pressed by a moderator. He later added that, 'I do support fracking and I don’t, I don’t—I support fracking, and I stand, and I do support fracking.' His stumbles over his real position is understandable because his pro-fracking conversion, if that’s what it is, is recent. 'I don’t support fracking at all and I never have,' Mr. Fetterman told a YouTube channel in 2018," the board said. "The point isn’t about catching a politician in a flip-flop. The Fetterman contradiction shows how Democrats are in trouble because they nominated too many candidates whose views on crime, immigration, climate and the economy are all but impossible to defend in competitive races this year.
"The left turn didn’t matter in 2018 as voters came out to put a check on Mr. Trump’s chaotic governance. It mattered more in 2020, especially after the 'summer of love' riots following George Floyd’s murder. 'Defund the police' cost the party House seats," the board added. "But Mr. Trump was still the main election issue, and Democrats played down their left turn by nominating the reassuring Joe Biden, who promised to work with Republicans and unite the country. Democrats have tried mightily to drag Mr. Trump back into the 2022 campaign, and Mr. Trump has often obliged by meddling in GOP primaries on behalf of weak candidates. But he isn’t on any ballot next month. Voters have thus had the chance to focus on the record of the Biden Democrats in office, and the policy views of Democratic challengers."
In The New York Post, John Podhoretz said it's an act of personal and political malpractice to keep Fetterman in the race.
"I’ve never seen anything like the Pennsylvania Senate debate between John Fetterman and Mehmet Oz on Tuesday night, and I hope never to have to see anything like it ever again. It was horrible," Podhoretz said. "The stroke that Fetterman himself said ‘knocked’ him down at the debate’s outset has impaired him. Full stop. Don’t believe anyone who even tries to tell you different, and you should probably not trust any such person to tell you whether you need an umbrella because you don’t know whether it’s raining.
"Seeing Fetterman struggle to answer simple questions and form simple sentences was nothing less than an agony," he wrote. "There’s no sense even in trying to characterize how he did in expressing himself on issues, or how Mehmet Oz did talking about matters ranging from abortion to fracking to Social Security. Only one thing mattered, and that was watching Fetterman try to make a showing of himself despite his painful impairment. I don’t want to quote what he said or make specific note of his speech patterns or answers because it would be unnecessarily cruel. Could Fetterman improve? Yes. Will he improve? We do not know. During the debate he refused to say he would release actual medical records rather than a clearly ginned-up letter from a doctor who is one of his donors."
In Broad and Liberty, a Philadelphia-based news outlet, Christine Flowers said the debate was "cruelty in real time."
"Fetterman performed so poorly, even he could not do a rhetorical limbo under a bar set unfairly low for him," she said. "He stammered. He gazed vacantly into the distance, collecting thoughts that would not come. He repeated platitudes devoid of detail about his concern for the working man. He contradicted himself, Fetterman who opposes fracking against Fetterman who supports it. He tried to harness the power of the aggrieved feminists with his insistence that he’d protect the right to choose…an abortion. He never mentioned the privilege of bearing a child. He floundered on how he’d bring down tuition costs, refused to even answer a question about releasing his medical records, and kept attacking his opponent Mehmet Oz for bad commercials.
"And I watched, and at first became elated at how poorly he’d done... But then, I stopped. The political became the personal," Flowers said. "This was a sick man. And I thought of his ambitious wife, pushing him onward despite his infirmity. I thought of doctors who were Democratic donors and prostituted their judgment for some political advantage. I thought of campaign operatives desperate to hide what could not be hidden forever, hoping to beat the electoral clock. I thought of the Fetterman children, deprived of a father at [a] time they needed him most, and he them... And I cried. I hate everything Fetterman represents. I hate the people who love him. They are anathema, and toxic. And yet, I cried for a man, not a movement. Politics is cruel. Tonight showed that, in technicolor terms. John Fetterman must go home. He deserves better. So do we."
What the left is saying.
- Many on the left praise Fetterman for braving the debate stage, even if they worry about how his performance will impact the race.
- Some insist that we have no reason to believe he is unfit for office, and with the proper accommodations he could serve effectively as a senator.
- Others criticize Oz for his stances on issues like abortion and social security.
In MSNBC, Zeeshan Aleem said the "core difference" pundits will discuss is their communication style, but it shouldn't be the focus.
"Oz is a seasoned television host who knows how to speak with polish in front of a camera," Aleem said. "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.
"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," he wrote. "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."
In CNN, Jill Filipovic said we should have "tremendous admiration" for Fetterman.
"He’s recovering from a stroke; he knows he is not as coherent and articulate as he was this time last year, and – because he is not in fact cognitively impaired – he is acutely aware of how much his mouth is not cooperating with his brain," Filipovic said. "He was asked to compete in an impossible arena, with his disabilities being among the worst kind for live television, and going toe-to-toe on live television with an opponent who is a professional television personality. And still, he showed up. That’s a kind of courage, character, and gumption we rarely see from practiced politicians with teams of careful advisers; it’s the kind of underdog story Americans love, at least when it’s in the movies.
"When asked about whether he would support a national abortion ban, Oz’s answer was troubling: Abortion rights, he said, should not be decided by the federal government, but should rather be a matter decided by a woman and her doctor… and 'local political leaders' who can collectively weigh in so that states – not women – 'can decide for themselves' whether abortion should be criminalized. In other words, abortion is not just a woman’s right – it’s an open political question... On the merits, I would bet that Fetterman’s positions are more in line with what Pennsylvania voters want. And Pennsylvania voters should understand, in no uncertain terms, that an Oz victory and a Republican majority in the Senate likely means a Republican attempt at a national abortion ban, Republican-led whittling-away at Social Security and further attacks on American democracy."
The Philadelphia Inquirer editorial board said Pennsylvanians should have "a great deal of respect" for Fetterman.
"Fetterman showed courage in taking the debate stage in Harrisburg. Many Americans — whether from lack of experience or lack of understanding — are unaccustomed to or uncomfortable with special accommodations for those with disabilities," the board said. "If elected to the U.S. Senate, Fetterman could become a role model in helping the nation better understand that a person’s struggles can also be a source of strength. Fetterman expects to gradually improve. He released a letter from his doctor that said, if elected, he would be able to serve in the Senate without problems. Fetterman has addressed his health somewhat, but he would be better served by being more open and honest about his challenges and prognoses.
"In the meantime, his Republican opponent, Mehmet Oz, the television doctor from New Jersey, could stand to improve his bedside manner. At one point during the back-and-forth on education, Oz offered this cheap shot: 'Obviously, I wasn’t clear enough for you to understand this.' Earlier, Oz’s communications adviser, Rachel Tripp, said if Fetterman 'had ever eaten a vegetable in his life, then maybe he wouldn’t have had a major stroke.' These statements are callous attacks more befitting of a playground bully than a candidate for U.S. Senate," the board wrote. "Oz, who used to hold more liberal positions on guns and abortion, appears to be adapting to the cruelty campaign that sadly has become a hallmark of many members of his party. There may be no cure for that."
Reminder: "My take" is a section where I give myself space to share my own personal opinion. It is meant to be one perspective amid many others. If you have feedback, criticism, or compliments, you can reply to this email and write in. If you're a paying subscriber, you can also leave a comment.
- It was a hard to watch, and I felt bad for Fetterman.
- This isn't as simple as him being "unfit" — but we need more clarity on his health issues.
- Regardless of how I feel, I'm confident that the debate on Tuesday will only hurt Fetterman politically.
Like many others, I thought the debate was difficult to watch.
The Democratic candidate who was on stage Tuesday night was very clearly different from the man Pennsylvania voters had seen in the months and years leading up to May's primary. While dozens of news outlets trotted out quotes from medical doctors about his remarkable recovery, it's clear he is still struggling, quite publicly, with his new post-stroke reality. And there is an uncomfortableness in watching him try to push through that struggle in front of an audience of millions — one that is hard to shake. I feel for him.
But let’s get to the heart of the issue: Fetterman's trouble communicating should not render him unfit for the job. When you see a person who is having trouble speaking in the way Fetterman is, it might be hard to imagine they totally grasp what is happening around them. I am not a neurologist or speech pathologist or expert on stroke victims, so I will defer to the people who are. And they have made it quite clear that if Fetterman is suffering only from "auditory processing" issues, that is not indicative of some depleted cognitive function — i.e. his ability to problem solve, think through issues, understand his surroundings, etc. That distinction is important for a potential U.S. senator.
If the campaign is being honest about his health issues, what's happening to Fetterman is more akin to a serious stutter or hearing problem than some kind of intellectual or cognitive disability that would be deleterious for his work.
But the operative word here is "if."
Since his health problems started, Fetterman's team has been somewhere between cagey and wholly dishonest. As of this writing, the closest thing to a clean bill of health for Fetterman that voters have is a letter signed by a doctor who donated to his campaign. In the debate on Tuesday, he once again refused to commit to releasing his health records. So, when we discuss what we are seeing with Fetterman's health, we are working on the assumption his "auditory processing" issues are, in fact, the only real lingering health issues related to his stroke.
Of course, the Senate still likes to think of itself as the "world’s greatest deliberative body." A large part of the job is debate, discussion, hearings, and addresses on the Senate floor. He’ll have to cajole senators for support behind closed doors and work to rally votes on legislation he supports. On Tuesday, Fetterman had all the accommodations he'd seemingly get in the Senate and was at times still unintelligible. That's a problem.
But it may not be disqualifying. His condition may improve, Congress already counts several stroke survivors and people with disabilities as members, and if Fetterman needs closed captioning or a few extra seconds to ask questions and converse in a Senate hearing or on the floor — that obviously isn't something that should disqualify him from being in office.
The worse news for Fetterman is that he was standing across from a television pro. Oz knows how to command a room and garner attention on TV. He looked mostly smooth on stage, and one imagines a pre-stroke Fetterman may have called him out on one of the several lies or misleading comments he made during the debate. Instead, the toughest moment for Oz came when he implied "political leaders" should have a role in a woman's decision on abortion, something that is not going to play well with moderates in Pennsylvania.
Fetterman's worst moment came on fracking, an issue where he's flip-flopped, and his position was no clearer after the debate. It appears his campaign is pivoting into a pro-fracking stance, a stark contrast to where he stood at any point in the last few years.
The obvious question is: How much will any of this matter? On the one hand, 635,000 voters in Pennsylvania have already cast ballots, and it's hard to imagine too many people changing their minds at this point. On the other hand, poll aggregators show Fetterman with anywhere from a 1% to 3% lead, with 6% to 8% of the vote still up for grabs. Those are a lot of votes still on the table, and a lot of independent-minded swing voters in the Keystone State.
In a vacuum, I think Fetterman's policy positions are slightly more in line with the majority of Pennsylvania voters, which is probably why he started this campaign with such a healthy lead. That, paired with Oz's high unfavorability, tenuous support among the MAGA base, and vulnerabilities as a super-rich candidate who spent most of his life in New Jersey, made the race look like a solid blue hold early on. But elections aren’t simply about issues and candidate profiles. They’re also about basic human instincts, luck, and momentum.
Things have changed. Oz’s candidacy — one focused on crime, immigration, inflation and gas prices — feels very in line with the concerns of Pennsylvania voters right now. About a month ago, after lots of conversations with neighbors, friends, Uber drivers, and journalists in the Philadelphia and Bucks County area, I predicted on Twitter that Oz would win in Pennsylvania. Enthusiasm for him seemed to be growing, he's winning the sign wars in the suburbs, and I believe the polls are still under-representing pro-Trump conservatives.
I can only imagine Tuesday helped Oz. As Politico recently put it, "the median voter in Pennsylvania is a middle-aged white person with a mid-five-figure salary who did not attend college." Whatever your feelings about it, that voter is unlikely to engage in the "ableism" debate progressive activists and journalists are partaking in on Twitter, and even less likely to pore over a paywalled New York Times op-ed about auditory processing issues and stroke recovery.
They're going to see a candidate with health problems. And for anyone left on the fence in this extremely close race, that’s going to hurt Fetterman.
Your questions, answered.
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Tangle: That's a very interesting question. I definitely don't see myself as a "political actor," which sounds more to me like an activist, lobbyist, or politician. I think, first and foremost, I see myself as a journalist. That is my original craft and the career path that led to me creating Tangle. And the skills I learned in college, reporting on politics in my professional career, and at various journalism conferences are all skills I use every day for Tangle.
But, obviously, Tangle is about opinion, too. Most of the original reporting or writing we do comes in Friday editions. The Monday-Thursday newsletter is a lot of aggregating other people's opinions, distilling the best information available in an even-handed way, and then offering my own perspective. "My take" definitely includes some reporting, in that I often text, call, email and interview other people to help form my own opinions. But it's not traditional reporting, and I suppose the presence of “My take” makes me somewhat of a columnist, too.
As for the newsletter itself, I do like to think of it as operating "outside" politics. I believe Tangle and this community we're building are an antithesis to the "insider" D.C., beltway genre. We try to tap into the core tenets of any single issue and the ways that issue will affect Americans. In my eyes, we are detached from the everyday happenings of the sensational or outrage news cycle, and by stepping outside of it and collecting a diverse set of opinions on it, we can offer a more rational and nuanced perspective on what is happening in the U.S. and across the world.
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Under the radar.
Members of a second railroad union have rejected a tentative agreement on wages and work conditions, upending weeks of calm after the White House brokered a deal to prevent a strike. The Brotherhood of Railroad Signalmen's latest vote means the two sides are headed back to the negotiating table, and failure to reach an agreement could mean a strike in December. A strike among railroad workers in the U.S. could cause chaos in an already shaky supply chain. Six of the 12 labor unions involved in this round of bargaining have ratified their agreements, but two of the largest are still in talks. The Wall Street Journal (paywall) has the story.
- $1 million. The amount of money raised by John Fetterman in the three hours after Tuesday's debate.
- 2.4%. John Fetterman's current average polling lead over Mehmet Oz, according to aggregation of polls from FiveThirtyEight.
- 1.3%. John Fetterman's current average polling lead over Mehmet Oz, according to aggregation of polls from RealClearPolitics.
- 159 million. The number of Americans who get their health coverage through their employer.
- 20%. The increase in premiums for health care coverage through an employer over the last five years.
- 26,792. The number of people in the U.S. currently hospitalized from or with Covid-19.
Have a nice day.
A new app built by Berkeley researchers is warning people before earthquakes hit. This week, MyShake successfully gave California residents a nearly 20-second warning before a 5.1 magnitude earthquake hit the Bay Area on Tuesday. The app delivered the notification to 95,000 devices. It works by collecting motion data from your phone and uses a patented neural network to determine if the motion fits the model of an earthquake. Some two million people downloaded the app after Tuesday's successful warning, and the creators hope it can be used down the road in countries where alternative systems aren't available. Right now, the app is functioning in California, Oregon and Washington. SF Gate has the story.
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