Midway through a combative Pennsylvania US Senate debate, as Democrat John Fetterman and Republican Mehmet Oz expounded on policy matters ranging from fracking to the minimum wage and Social Security, former Obama White House speechwriter Pat Cunnane weighed in with an observation about the issue that everyone was focused on: the status of Fetterman’s recovery from a serious stroke in May. “Put the analysis to the side for a second: What John Fetterman is doing right now in the midst of his recovery—so publicly, on the same stage as a smirking TV doctor—is remarkably brave.”
It was brave. And difficult. Fetterman acknowledged from the start that he is still in recovery. “Let’s also talk about the elephant in the room,” he said to the audience at the opening of Tuesday night’s one-hour televised debate.
“I had a stroke. He’s never let me forget that,” the Pennsylvania lieutenant governor said of his Republican rival, in a race that could decide which party ends up controlling the Senate. “I might miss some words during this debate, mush two words together. It knocked me down, but I’m going to keep coming back up. This campaign is all about—to me—fighting for anyone in Pennsylvania that ever got knocked down that needs to get back up again, and fighting for all forgotten communities all across Pennsylvania that also got knocked down and that need to get back up.”
Fetterman’s debate’s presentation was halting at times. But he took clear stands in favor of increasing the minimum wage, protecting Social Security, and treating health care as “a basic, fundamental right.” Oz was far more evasive, delivering convoluted responses that frequently led the moderators to repeat the question in hopes of getting an actual answer.
On the question of abortion rights, however, Oz got specific. Unfortunately for the celebrity physician and TV host, that specificity is likely to haunt him through the final two weeks of the critical contest for the seat, left open by Republican Senator Pat Toomey’s decision not to seek reelection. While Fetterman spoke about his unequivocal support for making the reproductive rights protections outlined in the US Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade decision the law of the land, Oz rejected the idea of establishing a clear national standard to preserve those protections after the Supreme Court’s June decision to upend Roe.
Instead, Oz offered a states’ rights argument. “I don’t want the federal government involved with that at all,” he said. “I want 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.”
In other words, Oz is in favor of a patchwork quilt of abortion laws that in many parts of the country would see “local political leaders” ban abortion and punish women and doctors. “Oz made a terrible gaffe today that’s going to cost him votes,” said US Representative Ro Khanna (D-Calif.)
That was a widely held view. Jezebel’s Susan Rinkunas observed, “The quack TV doctor Mehmet Oz may have sounded smooth in his debate against John Fetterman, but his actual words were frightening.” Civil rights attorney Areva Martin declared, “Dr. Oz is dangerous! We owe it to our daughters, nieces and every woman in our life to defeat him. No candidate or elected official has ever said local politicians should be involved in a man’s health decision. Nor should they be in ours!” Former White House press secretary Jen Psaki summed up the damage done, recalling, “Remember when the debate was going to be the night Dr. Oz crushed John Fetterman with his verbal mastery? Turns out inviting local political leaders into your doctors office with you is what he had up his sleeve.”
Oz’s bizarre statement went viral. Fetterman was tweeting as soon as the debate was done about the Republican’s “EXTREME” stance, while his spokesman declared:
Our campaign will be putting money behind making sure as many women as possible hear Dr. Oz’s radical belief that ‘local political leaders’ should have as much say over a woman’s abortion decisions as women themselves and their doctors. After months of trying to hide his extreme abortion position, Oz let it slip on the debate stage on Tuesday. Oz belongs nowhere near the US Senate, and suburban voters across Pennsylvania will see just how out-of-touch Oz is on this issue.
The Fetterman camp won’t have any trouble getting the word out. Before the night was done, the Democrat had raised more than $500,000 in fresh contributions to deliver the message that Dr. Oz is more than ready to give local politicians the power to deny a woman’s right to choose.