Fetterman campaign: Yes, okay, fine, he doesn’t want to debate yet because of his stroke

Source: Hot Air

See? Admitting that wasn’t so hard, was it?

A few days ago Dr. Oz’s campaign mocked Fetterman for his reluctance to debate, offering to give him unlimited bathroom breaks and to “pay for any additional medical personnel he might need to have on standby.” Fetterman’s campaign seized on that as a pretext to decline the debate invitation by feigning offense. We won’t reward someone who’d be callous enough to mock a stroke survivor, they replied.

But they’re not offended. Fetterman’s just not up to it. And his campaign appears to have made a strategic decision not to pretend otherwise, for now.

Pennsylvania Democrat John Fetterman’s Senate campaign said Wednesday that his stroke recovery, which has complicated his ability to engage in verbal conversations, could influence his plans for debates with Republican nominee Mehmet Oz in one of this fall’s highest-stakes races.

“We are working to figure out what a fair debate would look like with the lingering impacts of the auditory processing in mind,” Fetterman campaign strategist Rebecca Katz said. “To be absolutely clear, the occasional issues he is having with auditory processing have no bearing on his ability to do the job as senator. John is healthy and fully capable of showing up and doing the work.”

Advisers say Fetterman can engage in one-on-one conversations but struggles with more chaotic auditory environments, a condition that is common for stroke survivors and which doctors say can improve over time.

I think owning it is the wise move in this case. There are two months left in the race; Fetterman having to come up with a new excuse each week to dodge Oz’s debate demands would quickly devolve into absurdity. Everyone understands why he can’t/won’t debate so deflecting would just turn him into a liar. Better to come clean, notch some brownie points for honesty, and try to get voters on his side by asking them to bear with him.

He did a pattycake interview last night with MSNBC that’s worth watching. Softball interviews are seldom newsy but this one is different because, at 13 minutes long, it was a rare sustained look at how Fetterman sounds nowadays in conversation. In all honesty, he doesn’t sound bad. A taste:

How much slack voters are willing to cut him depends, I think, on whether they come to view his problem as essentially cognitive or as something more akin to hearing loss or a stutter. Someone who’s impaired cognitively and can no longer meaningfully engage on policy has no business being in the Senate. (Ahem.) But I’d vote for a politician who’s capable of making an informed judgment about policy issues yet has difficulty communicating their opinions due to disability. In cases where the disability is relatively extreme, like being totally deaf, the complete inability to perform the communication side of the job might give me pause. Those skills are important, never more so than in an age of ubiquitous media.

But Fetterman’s impairment doesn’t seem that severe judging by the MSNBC clip. He might have been using closed captioning to help him understand what was being said — he’s used it in two other interviews he’s given recently — but I don’t get any sense from him that he’s having trouble comprehending things. In fact, if this interview was representative of how he normally is one-on-one, I suspect he’s going to start offering to do more of them in lieu of debating Oz. Most voters just want to see that he’s focused and engaged. He can accomplish that without having Oz present.

Although his relative normalcy here raises a question: If he’s recovered enough to do an interview, why isn’t he recovered enough to do a sitdown debate with Oz of the sort that the vice-presidential candidates do every four years? If his problem is with “chaotic auditory environments,” that’s easily solved. Just have him, Oz, and a moderator sitting around a table with no audience. If I were Team Oz, I’d propose that immediately. What will Fetterman’s excuse be for saying no then?

I suspect his reluctance to debate *isn’t* fundamentally about his health issues. I believe his campaign when they say he’s having issues with “chaotic auditory environments” but the foremost reason a candidate in his position shouldn’t want to debate isn’t because of his hearing. It’s because he’s in the lead, has turned the campaign into a referendum on Oz’s authenticity, and shouldn’t want to mess with that by putting himself in highly visible situations where his ideological radicalism might be exposed. For the moment, he’s just the chill dude in the hoodie who happened to have had a stroke. He can get elected as that guy. But can he get elected as Bernie 2.0? That’s the risk of a debate.

Here’s the interview so that you can judge for yourself. For what it’s worth, Democratic operatives told WaPo that voters who participated in focus groups last month said they weren’t concerned about Fetterman’s health and dismissed his speech problems as something that’ll abate in time.

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