“Examine your ableist instincts”: Critics mocked John Fetterman's debate performance after stroke

"I had a stroke. He's never let me forget that," Fetterman said at the lone debate with Mehmet Oz

By Areeba Shah

Staff Writer

Published October 26, 2022 1:43PM (EDT)

Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate John Fetterman holds a rally at Nether Providence Elementary School on October 15, 2022 in Wallingford, Pennsylvania. (Mark Makela/Getty Images)
Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate John Fetterman holds a rally at Nether Providence Elementary School on October 15, 2022 in Wallingford, Pennsylvania. (Mark Makela/Getty Images)

Democratic Pennsylvania Senate nominee John Fetterman, who is still recovering from a stroke he experienced in May, struggled to answer rapid-fire questions during his Tuesday debate with Republican candidate Mehmet Oz.

The two candidates sparred on issues such as fracking, abortion rights and immigration during the only debate in the Pennsylvania Senate race. 

The Oz team had previously gone after Fetterman for not committing to any debates, but his team waited as long as possible for the lieutenant governor to recover and agreed to the single debate in October. 

Fetterman began Tuesday night's debate by informing viewers he would have difficulty answering questions smoothly. 

"Let's also talk about the elephant in the room. I had a stroke. He's never let me forget that," Fetterman said, referring to previous comments Oz made about his fitness for office. "And I might miss some words during this debate, mush two words together, but it knocked me down but I'm going to keep coming back up. And this campaign is all about, to me, is about fighting for everyone in Pennsylvania that got knocked down, that needs to get back up, and fighting for all forgotten communities all across Pennsylvania that also got knocked down that needs to keep to get back up."

Both candidates agreed to special accommodations for Fetterman, including closed captioning to help him. 

Throughout the 60-minute debate, Oz raced through his answers and defended his time as the host of the "Dr. Oz" medical show, claiming he "never sold weight loss products."

Fetterman answered questions about raising the federal minimum wage to $15 per hour and went after Oz for his "10 gigantic mansions." Fetterman also faced questions about his health, including one about why he wouldn't release his full medical records.

"My doctor believes that I'm fit to be serving, and that's what I believe is where I'm standing," Fetterman said. 

His doctor has provided two letters saying he is capable of doing the job of a U.S. senator. 

During some questions, Fetterman tripped over phrases and mispronounced certain words. When asked about his stance on supporting fracking, Fetterman struggled to provide a clear response.

"Uh, I do support fracking, and, I don't—I don't—I support fracking, and I stand, and I do support fracking," Fetterman said.

Moments into the debate, critics seized on Fetterman's stumbles. 

"There is no amount of empathy for and understanding about Fetterman's health and recovery that changes the fact that this is absolutely painful to watch," tweeted New York Magazine reporter Olivia Nuzzi.

Andrew Feinberg, a politics reporter for The Independent, blamed Fetterman's team for his debate performance. 

"Sorry Democrats, but Fetterman lost the race tonight. He's in no way able to communicate clearly or effectively, and agreeing to this debate was political malpractice in the first degree. Whoever told him to do is should be finished in electoral politics," he wrote

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Fetterman's staff issued a statement prior to the debate highlighting that he would encounter communication "errors" as he is still "dealing with a lingering auditory processing challenge while recovering from a stroke." 

Regardless, his team was preparing for "right-wing media" to "circulate malicious viral videos" that paint him in a "negative light."

Fetterman's critics were accused of ableism by some observers. Erin Biba, a science journalist, slammed Nuzzi's characterization of the debate.

"The thing about her saying this quiet part out loud is that it's likely the majority of abled people feel this way and cannot or will not admit it, not even to themselves. Ableism truly is that ingrained in abled society," she tweeted. "I would encourage every abled person to really look deeply and honestly at their instincts in watching Fetterman. Ask yourself if you actually secretly agree with Nuzzi. Ask yourself why. Examine your ableist instincts that society has built into you."

Ana Navarro-Cárdenas, co-host of "The View," praised Fetterman for powering through the debate despite knowing he has "auditory & processing issues as a result of stroke."

"He could've refused to debate like some candidates have. Instead, he went out there and let voters see his challenges and healing process. Support him or not, that takes courage, humility and honesty," she tweeted

Connie Schultz, a columnist for USA Today, lashed out at critics mocking Fetterman's performance "as if they are immune from the randomness of illness and infirmity." 

"Time catches up with everyone, no exceptions," Schultz wrote. "Few would have his courage to recover so publicly."

By Areeba Shah

Areeba Shah is a staff writer at Salon covering news and politics. Previously, she was a research associate at Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington and a reporting fellow for the Pulitzer Center, where she covered how COVID-19 impacted migrant farmworkers in the Midwest.

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