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Is the media honeymoon running out for John Fetterman?

Let’s not mince words: Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. John Fetterman (D) may not be capable of performing the duties required of him if he wins his race for U.S. Senate against Republican Mehmet Oz.

This perspective comes after Fetterman, who suffered a stroke nearly four months ago, seems to be avoiding a debate with Oz before early voting begins on Sept. 19. Pittsburgh’s KDKA-TV had offered to host a debate between the two on Sept. 6, but Fetterman declined.

“As I recover from this stroke and improve my auditory processing and speech, I look forward to continuing to meet with the people of Pennsylvania,” Fetterman said in a statement after the Oz campaign offered to debate in September. “They’ll always know where I stand.”

Actually, voters won’t know where Fetterman stands if he continues to do T-ball interviews with handpicked media members and avoids being challenged directly by Oz in a debate setting.

There are a few things to unpack here. For starters, Fetterman’s campaign has conceded that he struggles with “auditory processing” and speech, which is impossible to avoid in a debate. Stroke recovery can be unpredictable, particularly as it pertains to speech and motor skills; I witnessed this firsthand after my late mother suffered a stroke in her 50s and never fully recovered.

And if Fetterman is still unable to debate his political opponent months after suffering a stroke, how will he debate on the Senate floor and represent the residents of the Keystone State effectively?

In the few interviews Fetterman has done in recent weeks, it’s clear his speech therapy may be a very long road with no assured outcome. He often stumbles and his sentences are sometimes disjointed. 

“Send me to Washington, D.C., to send — so I can work with Senator Casey,” Fetterman said at a rally in Pittsburgh recently. “And I can champion the union way of life — in Jersey, excuse me, in D.C. Thank you. Thank you very much. And it’s an honor — I live eight minutes away from here. And when I leave tonight, I got, three miles away, Dr. Oz in his mansion in New Jersey. You’ve got a friend and you have an ally. Send me to Washington, D.C. Thank you very much.”

During interviews, Fetterman also needs the assistance of closed captioning to clearly absorb what the interviewer is saying. 

Not long after Fetterman’s unfortunate stroke, his health problems were mostly dismissed by outlets such as the New York Times, which celebrated Fetterman’s social media campaign when he physically was unable to go out on the trail earlier this summer.

The lieutenant governor’s refusal to go one-on-one with Oz in September before mail-in voting begins captured the attention of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in an editorial titled, “Beneath campaign nastiness, legitimate concerns about Fetterman’s health.”

“Voters have a right to know whether their prospective senator can do the job — including handling the give-and-take of a vigorous debate,” the editorial board concluded. 

It should be noted that Fetterman has yet to hold a press conference. The liberal Washington Post also is sounding the alarm on Fetterman’s refusal to debate. It recently editorialized:

“Mr. Fetterman is asking voters for a six-year contract without giving them enough information to make sound judgments about whether he’s up for such a demanding job.  …Mr. Fetterman should release his medical records for independent review. And he should debate Mr. Oz before voters start casting their ballots.”

As the Post notes, the Fetterman campaign can hardly be trusted on its assurances that the candidate should be able to serve in the Senate if he takes his medication and exercises. That’s the assurance Fetterman’s handlers point to via a doctor’s note written almost four months ago. Medical records should be released for all political candidates seeking office, but especially for someone who is having difficulty recovering from a stroke and who was diagnosed with cardiomyopathy five years ago, which was previously undisclosed.  

As for Fetterman following doctor’s orders and taking his medication, he apparently has failed in this regard in the past, according to his cardiologist. 

“I had prescribed medications along with improved diet and exercise and asked him to follow up again in the following months,” Dr. Ramesh Chandra explained in May. But, he said, “Instead, I did not see him again until [May of 2022]. John did not go to any doctor for 5 years and did not continue taking his medications.”

As for the status of any debates, Fetterman appears to be attempting to run out the clock. 

“We will debate sometime in the middle to end of October,” he said last week, offering no details. 

That shouldn’t cut it for Pennsylvania’s voters, however. Time is running out on Fetterman’s excuses not to debate before thousands of votes are cast that could decide a close election. 

It seems apparent that Fetterman may struggle in a debate environment. Voters are seeing how a scripted Fetterman is performing. Perhaps his handlers think debates would only raise more questions than answers. But the campaign has run out of excuses: Fetterman must debate or exit the stage entirely. 

Joe Concha is a media and politics columnist.

Tags Fetterman campaign John Fetterman John Fetterman John Fetterman Mehmet Oz Pennsylvania Senate race

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