NBC News reporter Dasha Burns’ revelation about Democratic U.S. Senate candidate John Fetterman’s mental acuity has once again raised questions about his fitness for the job. It has also raised the stakes for his debate with Republican Mehmet Oz at the end of the month.
Burns, who recently interviewed Fetterman, received pushback from partisan members of the media when she reported that “in small talk before the interview without captioning, it wasn’t clear he was understanding our conversation.” Due to the impact of a stroke he suffered in May, Fetterman only agreed to the interview if he could use a computer monitor with real-time closed captioning.
For weeks, Fetterman refused to agree to any debates. Now, the Oz campaign says, he has pushed it back so late that weeks of early voting will have taken place before the voters get to take the lieutenant governor’s measure in a one-on-one with his opponent.
“John Fetterman will do anything to keep voters in the dark about his radical policies, even if that means delaying a debate until the last minute, lying about his health, and robbing voters of their right to hear directly from both candidates,” said Oz spokesperson Rachel Tripp. “If John Fetterman won’t even do voters the courtesy of answering their questions, why would they trust him to fight for them in Washington? Pennsylvanians deserve a senator who will answer tough questions and address issues head-on – Dr. Mehmet Oz.”
Fetterman pushed back on Twitter: “Recovering from a stroke in public isn’t easy. But in January, I’m going to be much better–and Dr. Oz will still be a fraud.”
Asked if he still plans to debate, Fetterman said, “Well, yeah, of course I’m going to show up on the 25th.”
Agreeing to a single debate is a sign Fetterman is unfit, his critics say. But in the post-Trump political era, do debates still matter?
Fetterman is hardly alone in avoiding debates this cycle. In Georgia, Republican Herschel Walker will only debate Sen. Raphael Warnock once, limiting the number of questions he is likely to face over allegations he paid for a woman’s abortion.
And in Arizona, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Katie Hobbs is refusing to appear on stage with her GOP opponent Kari Lake even once. Not surprisingly, Lake is making an issue of Hobb’s refusal to give voters the basic courtesy of facing a nominee chosen by thousands of Arizona voters.
“I have no desire of the spectacle that she’s looking to create,” Hobbs told CBS News, adding that she is “happy with where we are.”
“Where she is” is trailing her Republican opponent by one point in the RealClearPolitics average.
And here in Pennsylvania, Republican gubernatorial candidate state Sen. Doug Mastriano is also a “no” on debates thus far — not that his opponent, Democratic Attorney General Josh Shapiro, is pushing to make one happen.
On Dom Giordano’s Phil-based radio show earlier this week, Mastriano said he’s happy to debate Shapiro. He just doesn’t want to have to debate the liberal media, too. He used the example of Gov. Tom Wolf (D) debating Republican Scott Wagner with the late Jeopardy! host Alex Trebek moderating. Trebek interjected his own opinions into the debate, Mastriano said.
He wants a debate where he and Shapiro pick their own moderators to ask questions, without any media bias.
“All the media would be welcome and then there is no bias. They could live-stream it all, whatever they want to do with it. We just want a fair platform. Josh Shapiro could even bring Donna Brazile. She could give him the questions in advance like she did Hillary Clinton. I don’t care. As a (former) military intelligence officer standing before generals, presidents, prime ministers, and handling tough issues of life and death, this would be a piece of cake,” Mastriano said.
More and more, however, pundits question the value of debates.
According to Larry Sabato, who oversees “Sabato’s Crystal Ball” at the University of Virginia Center for Politics, candidates can “get away with canceling debates without much of a penalty.”
Sabato told ABC News that debates over debates “have become a permanent part of campaigning, and most people just tune it out because it doesn’t affect their lives. It has no real impact on your campaign or your likelihood to win.”
New England-based GOP strategist Patrick Griffin has a similar viewpoint.
“In the days of yore, when I was a young political hack, debates were all the rage. Everyone studied and practiced, debate prep was a serious thing mainly because voters watched. A gaffe could be deadly. Catching that hitch moment and seeing replay in ads again and again created a win-or-lose destiny for candidates,” Griffin said.
“This election, like so many in recent years voters are too angry and impatient to listen to what they consider to be bs from both sides. Nobody has the time or interest — except for about a third of Democrats and a third of Republicans already firmly rooted in one camp or the other,” Griffin said.
Berwood Yost, director of the Center for Opinion Research and the Floyd Institute for Public Policy at Franklin and Marshall College, bemoaned the decline of debates but said he understands the political strategy.
“I think candidates for public office should engage in debates,” Yost told DVJournal. “It is not unusual for candidates who have a comfortable lead to try to avoid debating because they often feel they have more to lose than gain from them.”
Are these candidates right?
“Past experience shows that debates do not usually change the trajectory of a race, but I think candidates are less interested in debates because it makes it potentially more difficult for them to control the messages that emerge if they misspeak.”