The Many Flavors of Fetterman Cope

John Fetterman. (Photo by Kriston Jae Bethel/AFP/Getty Images.)

Normally the challenge in writing about a Senate debate is taking care to cover the key exchanges and shoehorning them into a contrived, too-pat “who won, who lost” narrative.

The challenge in writing about Tuesday night’s Pennsylvania Senate debate between John Fetterman and Mehmet Oz is trying to convey just how pitifully Fetterman struggled to communicate as he recovers from a stroke.

No words will do it justice. The best I can do is to say that Herschel Walker might not be the least coherent member of the Senate next year after all.

It was so bad that Joe Scarborough’s show, which airs on liberal America’s favorite cable-news network, felt obliged to air a lowlight reel the morning after.

The fracking answer in particular startled viewers. Two Daily Beast reporters on the scene in Pennsylvania at a debate watch party for Fetterman fans reported the room falling silent after his answer. “Some viewers turned to one another, scrunching up their faces and gritting their teeth. One person in the back even let out a groan,” they wrote.

In fairness to the candidate, his position on fracking may be less a matter of cognitive impairment than a case of a politician being a politician.

The Scarborough reel isn’t exhaustive, incidentally. There was also … this.

You know what he’s trying to say, that a rich man like Oz is too far removed from the plight of single parents to sympathize with their need for a higher minimum wage. But he’s having so much difficulty saying it that it’s little better than word salad.

The reaction on prediction markets was swift.

Media coverage in the aftermath was also broadly unflattering, as it couldn’t plausibly be anything else. “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),” Time’s Charlotte Alter tweeted. Some Democrats vented to reporters about the foolishness of letting the candidate debate in his condition. “Why the hell did Fetterman agree to this? This will obviously raise more questions than answers about John’s health,” said one congressional Dem to Axios for a piece titled “Fetterman’s Painful Debate.” Another party official from Pennsylvania conceded that “Everyone is nervous. I’ve traveled everywhere. Fetterman is a deep concern. And this debate will only increase it.”

Pretty cut and dried. A candidate afflicted with a serious medical problem had done his best in a big spotlight to prove he was fit for office. And had failed.

… But not according to social media, where even the most implausible spin can calcify into partisan groupthink if you insist upon it doggedly enough.

At least five different excuses for Fetterman’s performance circulated among Democrats last night as they struggled to cope with watching a Senate race that had seemed so promising a few months ago slip away.

1. Tech problems.

The first came from Team Fetterman. The candidates agreed ahead of the debate to use closed captioning, which helps Fetterman compensate for auditory processing difficulties from his stroke. And it was the closed captioning that did him in, his staff suggested, accusing the debate’s sponsor of using a system that was buggy and full of transcription errors.

That sponsor, Nexstar, was indignant at the charge and put the blame on the candidate for not having prepared more.

Bad captioning might explain why it took Fetterman longer than expected to respond to questions. But it sure wouldn’t explain why those responses too frequently devolved into word salad.

Still, “when in doubt, blame the tech” is a political excuse with a storied tradition. Be it the left’s suspicions about Diebold machines flipping Ohio for George W. Bush in 2004 or the right’s suspicions about Dominion Voting Systems flipping five different swing states for Joe Biden in 2020, whining about faulty or compromised technology is a tried and true way for losing factions to pass the buck for their failure.

2. Oz was bad too.

This spin is subjective and therefore has the virtue of being unfalsifiable. If you think Oz is a smarmy, unctuous blow-dried celebrity opportunist who got rich peddling quack miracle cures to gullible Oprah fans then he remains a nonstarter as senator entirely independent of Fetterman’s performance. Fetterman could be operating at the level of Tarzan, Tonto, and Frankenstein in one of those old Saturday Night Live bits and he’d still be preferable.

A good many Democratic voters in Pennsylvania will end up justifying their votes for him on those grounds. In an era as hyperpolarized as ours, “not a Republican” is all a candidate needs to bank 47-48 percent of the vote in a key swing state. Dems now have a straightforward task ahead of them in the final two weeks to persuade the decisive 3 or 4 percent in the middle who came away from last night’s debate with misgivings that even an addled John Fetterman deserves a Senate seat more than a fully functioning Mehmet Oz.

Notably, to the relief of liberals, Oz did hand his opponents a talking point with which to try to make that case.

With the so-called fundamentals breaking hard against Democrats in the campaign’s final weeks, I remain skeptical that abortion politics will spare them from a red wave. But this may be their best card to play against Oz in the home stretch, pivoting away from relative candidate quality and trying to make the election a de facto referendum on abortion policy. Does the pro-choice majority prefer a guy who no longer uses verbs in sentences but who’ll vote to keep abortion legal or do they prefer the smooth-talker who wants to let “local political officials” impose bans?

One Fetterman supporter compared his debate performance to a car accident in an interview with CNN before adding, “I would never vote for Oz. I don’t care if they had to wheel Fetterman into the Senate in a hospital bed.” Democracy fever, baby—catch it.

3. When you think about it, Fetterman’s sort of a hero.

This spin also began with the candidate’s campaign, of course. (See this NSFW tweet quoting his communications director.) The big guy was knocked down by his stroke, but not out. He got back up and returned to the arena to keep fighting for the working-class voters who yadda yadda yadda.

Is “courage” too strong a word? Not for some people.

“Fetterman is brave” is one way to look at what happened last night.

“Fetterman is foolish and selfish for having stayed in the race,” and “Fetterman is being exploited by his campaign team” are other ways.

Suspicions that the candidate and his wife were covering up the extent of his medical crisis began back in spring and were confirmed a few weeks later when his doctors admitted that his “mild” stroke wasn’t so mild. One can understand why Fetterman wasn’t eager to quit at the time. He’d just demolished the supposedly “electable” Democrat, Conor Lamb, in the primary and wanted to give himself time to recover in hopes that he’d regain most, if not all, of his ability to communicate.

But after a few months, when it must have been clear to him and his inner circle that he wasn’t progressing rapidly enough, he would have done his party a favor by withdrawing and letting local officials add a substitute to the ticket—Lamb, perhaps, or even Fetterman’s wife Gisele, who’s developed a following among his fans.

Evidently he couldn’t let go of his Senate dream, no matter what that might mean for Democrats’ chances to flip Pennsylvania. If you found yourself shocked by the clips I posted above, imagine the reaction among Democratic officials who’d doubtless been assured privately for months that Fetterman was doing well in his recovery and would be ready to handle a live debate.

Either he duped his party so that they wouldn’t throw him off the ballot or his inner circle took advantage of him by pressuring him to stay in the race, not wanting to see their own opportunities for future political success give way to Lamb and his team.

There are words to describe tanking your party’s chances at holding the Senate due to blind ambition. “Heroic” isn’t one of them.

4.  One never knows how voters will react to anything.

Here’s another example of unfalsifiable spin, at least until the first post-debate polls of Pennsylvania drop.

But there’s something to it. In a country that was willing to elect an amoral game-show host president, no one would bet heavily on a swing-state electorate applying an exacting definition of “fit for office.” Nor should anyone assume that the people who’ll end up deciding the Fetterman/Oz race were glued to their sets for the debate. The attention spans of American voters are short and getting shorter. If you’re the sort who’s so removed from politics that you’re still undecided between these two clowns in late October, chances are you were watching Netflix last night instead.

In theory.

In reality, I’d guess that the debate drew a bigger audience than debates in Pennsylvania typically do. Partly that’s because of the stakes this year, knowing that the outcome there might determine control of the Senate; partly it’s because of the tightness of the race, with the Democrat’s lead now barely north of a point; but mostly, I suspect, it’s because of curiosity about Fetterman’s condition. After months of speculation about his condition, last night was the one and only chance voters would get to see how the candidate functions during an hour of uninterrupted conversation. It was less a debate than the exciting final episode of a suspenseful medical mystery.

We’ll know soon how many people watched.

For the record, though, yes, of course there’s no way to tell how the average voter might react. Twitter isn’t real life, as the saying goes.

Voters are not doctors. Many are myopic, distracted, and quick to make judgments with limited information. If there’s one thing everyone knows about campaign debates, it’s how superficial they are. We all remember RICHARD NIXON’s suspicious stubble and GEORGE H.W. BUSH’s impatient glance at his watch and AL GORE’s annoying sighs and DONALD TRUMP’s manic interruptions more than anything any of them said.

The median voter in Pennsylvania is a middle-aged white person with a mid-five-figure salary who did not attend college. That demographic is perhaps the least likely to be following the Fetterman ableism debate on Twitter and MSNBC.

Perhaps they’ll be sympathetic?

Or perhaps they’ll consult their own personal experiences with stroke recovery and conclude that Fetterman is nowhere near where he should be cognitively to do a job as demanding as senator. Call me old-fashioned, but a candidate in a toss-up race sounding out-and-out incoherent in his lone televised debate strikes me as more of a liability than an asset. No matter how eccentric and unpredictable and sympathetic modern voters might be.

5. Holding Fetterman’s performance against him is “ableist.”

Yes, really. To some, caring that a candidate is unable to perform the most elemental duties of the office he’s seeking is a form of prejudice, dirty pool.

“Bullying,” even.

The “ableist” critique got rolling days ago thanks to Gisele Fetterman, who deployed it against NBC reporter Dasha Burns. After interviewing John Fetterman earlier this month, Burns introduced the segment by noting, presciently, that during their uncaptioned small talk before the interview “it wasn’t clear he understood what I was saying.” Fetterman’s wife was irate after hearing that. “If this happened in a school, if this was a child that was ableist towards another child or a teacher, there would’ve been issues stated. There would have been new training done,” she told the Independent. “What is being done at the media after a reporter came out so openly ableist towards a person?”

Burns was pilloried similarly by others, part of her punishment for having suddenly placed Democrats’ chances of flipping a crucial Senate seat at risk. “I was stunned to see how the coverage of [Fetterman’s] use of captions was so riddled with ableism,” one disability advocate told BuzzFeed. Another said he was so distressed by Burns’ questions and NBC’s editing of Fetterman’s answers that he turned the interview off, dismissing it as “overt discrimination” and warning—of course—that it would encourage “violence” against the disabled. Even other reporters chimed in on Fetterman’s behalf, scolding Burns by insisting that he seemed cogent in their own interviews with him.

After last night’s debate, the only question about Burns’ observations of Fetterman is whether she went too easy on him. Yet the “ableist” critique abides.

A writer at The Atlantic called Fetterman’s performance “a Rorschach test of comfort with disability” and lamented how no amount of accommodations for disability “can change how our society stigmatizes verbal disfluency. We are a culture of sound bites, mic drops, and clapbacks. To speak in any way that deviates from the norm is to summon ridicule and judgment.”

Of course, the core problem with Fetterman wasn’t “verbal disfluency,” a slippery euphemism that might aptly describe anyone who struggles with extemporaneous speaking. The problem was that his “disfluency” was so extreme that viewers were left wondering just how impaired cognitively he might be.

We’re at an interesting turn in American history if the belief that senators should be able to perform the basic tasks of their job now amounts to victimizing the vulnerable. Especially since, if there’s any victim in the Fetterman fiasco, it’s the Pennsylvania Democrats who were misled for months into believing that he’d be able to put voters’ doubts about his fitness to rest before Election Day.

As Democrats continue to try on different coping strategies to spin his performance until they find one that fits, we’re left with three questions.

First, did media outlets who interviewed Fetterman over the past few months cover up his true condition? It’s hard to believe Dasha Burns was the first reporter who encountered him to realize he was further behind in his recovery than his campaign had let on. Over the summer I watched snippets of conversations he’s had with reporters and found him to be cogent, missing a word here or there but otherwise intelligible. Was that a product of creative editing, whether because his interviewers didn’t want to be attacked as “ableist” or because a Democratic Senate seat in Pennsylvania is too precious to sacrifice for matters as trivial as truth and accuracy?

Second, why did Fetterman opt to debate at all? If he and/or his advisers were hellbent on him staying in the race, basic strategic logic should have led them to conceal his disability to the bitter end. That would have been unethical, but it was also unethical for him to continue his campaign after it became clear internally that he wouldn’t be able to perform effectively anymore.

He could have pulled out of the debate and instead chosen to do a series of interviews with friendly reporters, of which there’s no shortage, to try to “prove” to wary Pennsylvanians that he was up to the job. Disguising the extent of his impairment until the final two weeks of the race, when late-deciders are making up their minds, only to reveal it in spectacular fashion in a closely watched televised debate is … curious.

Why didn’t he beg off like Katie Hobbs in Arizona? Granted, some would have assumed the worst about his condition had he refused to face Oz. But better to have them assume it than to show up and remove all doubt.

Finally, if Fetterman ends up winning this race anyway against all odds, how will Pennsylvania cope in the aftermath? A few days ago Rolling Stone alleged that Trump and his cronies are hard at work manufacturing their next “rigged election” narrative with a focus on Pennsylvania—specifically Philadelphia, a recurring populist target because of its large population of Democrats of a certain hue. “If the Republican does not win by a wide enough margin to trigger a speedy concession from Fetterman—or if the vote tally is close on or after Election Night in November—Trump and other Republicans are already preparing to wage a legal and activist crusade against the ‘election integrity’ of Democratic strongholds such as the Philly area,” the magazine reported.

That was published on Sunday, 48 hours before the Senate debate. In the wake of Fetterman’s disastrous performance, MAGA populists will now take it on faith that he can’t win this election if the election is legitimate. A victory for the Democrat will be proof per se of massive cheating per the theory that swing voters couldn’t possibly have preferred him to Oz after watching last night’s spectacle. All of which means we’re on track potentially for a reprise of the 2020 “stop the steal” madness in Pennsylvania two weeks from now. More lawfare! More violent Trump demagoguery! More election denialism from a political faction that’s already drowning in it! Buckle up.

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