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Fetterman & Oz Spar on Abortion, Student Debt & Economy in Closely Watched Senate Debate in Penn.

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The candidates for U.S. Senate in Pennsylvania met Tuesday for their first and only debate in a race being closely watched across the country as a possible bellwether for the midterm elections. Trump-backed Republican nominee and TV personality Mehmet Oz, better known as Dr. Oz, sparred with Lieutenant Governor John Fetterman about crime, inflation, abortion and more. The night was a major test for Fetterman, who used a closed captioning device as he recovers from a major stroke that has resulted in auditory processing difficulties. “No matter where you come down politically, it was a very hard night for John Fetterman in terms of where he was at with his stroke recovery and trying to deal with a format like this,” says journalist Will Bunch, who called the debate “one of the most make-or-break nights I’ve seen in my lifetime of covering politics.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: In Pennsylvania, Senate candidates Democrat John Fetterman and Republican Mehmet Oz faced off Tuesday night in their first and only debate ahead of the November 8th election to fill the seat held by Republican Senator Pat Toomey, who’s retiring at the end of the term. The Pennsylvania race will likely help decide which party controls the Senate. Fetterman is the lieutenant governor of Pennsylvania, who’s running as a progressive populist. Oz is a well-known television doctor who’s worth at least $76 million. He has been endorsed by Donald Trump.

Much of the race has been focused on Fetterman’s health. Just days before the Democratic primary in May, Fetterman suffered a stroke, forcing him to cancel public appearances for months. He still suffers from auditory processing issues. On Tuesday night, a closed captioning system was set up so Fetterman could read the questions and his opponent’s responses. During his opening statement, Fetterman discussed his stroke.

LT. GOV. JOHN FETTERMAN: And let’s also talk about the elephant in the room. I had a stroke. He has never let me forget that. 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 ever got knocked down that needs to get back up, and fighting for all forgotten communities all across Pennsylvania.

AMY GOODMAN: One of the most heated portions of the debate between John Fetterman and Mehmet Oz centered on the issue of reproductive rights. This is Dr. Oz talking about his support for the overturning of Roe v. Wade.

DR. MEHMET OZ: There should not be involvement from the federal government in how states decide their abortion decisions. As a physician, I’ve been in the room when there are some difficult conversations happening. I don’t want the federal government involved with that at all. 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.

AMY GOODMAN: Meanwhile, John Fetterman reiterated his support for reproductive rights.

LT. GOV. JOHN FETTERMAN: What I support? I support on Roe v. Wade. That was the law of the land for 50 years. He celebrated when it fell down. And I would fight to reestablish on Roe v. Wade. That’s what I run on. That’s what I believe. And I’ve always believed that the choice [inaudible] women and their doctors. And he believes that the choice should be with him or Republican legislatures all across this nation.

AMY GOODMAN: For more, we’re joined in Philadelphia by Will Bunch, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, national columnist for The Philadelphia Inquirer.

Will, welcome back to Democracy Now! So, let’s start off. The significance of this race? I mean, it’s one of the most watched races in the country right now, could determine the balance of the U.S. Senate. And then talk about this debate last night.

WILL BUNCH: Yes, well, it absolutely could. I mean, if you look at the polls right now, if all the races went the way the polls are predicting, we’d be at or close to another 50-50 Senate. So, one race could really decide whether it’s 50-50 or 51-49 either way. It could decide who the next Senate majority leader is going to be, whether it’s going to be Mitch McConnell or Chuck Schumer. So this race is absolutely important. The polls have shown it’s been tightening, that Fetterman has led in most of the polls, but Oz has polled to within a virtual tie at this point. So, last night was truly, you know, in terms of Senate races — and I’ve been covering politics for 40 years — just one of the most make-or-break nights I’ve seen in my lifetime of covering politics.

AMY GOODMAN: And talk about what happened last night, in the beginning, when John Fetterman addressed the issue of his stroke, very unusual, as he read closed captioning so he could process the questions and Mehmet Oz’s responses.

WILL BUNCH: Yes. I mean, so, what Fetterman and his team did was they tried to prepare the audience for the fact that he was going to struggle verbally on some of the answers. You know, they prepared going into it. I think you played his clip at the beginning, where he said he might mush words together, he might struggle with some of the answers.

That having said, I mean, I think no matter where you come down politically, it was a very hard night for John Fetterman in terms of where he was at with his stroke recovery and trying to deal with a format like this. You know, a lot of people pointed out the format of the debate last night, which was really built around very short answers and meant to have kind of a rapid-fire give-and-take, was probably the worst possible format for him. I mean, he struggled with it. He clearly struggled with some of his answers.

And again, it really kind of falls on the electorate to some point of how do you view that. I mean, most doctors say Fetterman has shown that he is recovering from this stroke. He’s at a stage of his recovery where he’s not 100% recovered, but it’s mainly auditory processing issues. And the question is whether — as far as that part of it is concerned, whether voters are going to look at his heart problem or what’s in Fetterman’s heart — right? — what his positions are on the issues and what he would do as a senator in terms of how he’d vote on things like reproductive rights or the minimum wage. So —

AMY GOODMAN: Now, reproductive rights is a really interesting issue. We just played those clips. But for Dr. Mehmet Oz to say he doesn’t want the feds involved with this decision, as if he was saying it should be a woman’s personal decision, he did say it should be a decision between a woman, her doctor and local political leaders.

WILL BUNCH: Yeah. I mean, what was fascinating was, you know, for all the focus on Fetterman’s performance, absolutely the worst gaffe of the night was from Mehmet Oz, you know, the fact that — that line, where he said an abortion is a decision between a woman, her doctor and local elected officials. I mean, Pennsylvanians are going to see that moment on a loop nonstop between now and November 8th, because that is just going to be a highly unpopular position. The vast majority of voters in Pennsylvania, as in the rest of the country, do not want anyone else involved in that very private decision about reproductive rights. So, that was a terrible moment for him.

AMY GOODMAN: Doctor’s offices are going to have to get bigger — doctor’s offices are going to have to get bigger in order to fit the doctor, the person who is pregnant and the local elected officials all into that little office, as they’re making their decision.

WILL BUNCH: Oh my gosh, yeah. The reaction — I mean, my Twitter feed was flooded with tweets from local elected officials saying, “Look, I’m the last person you want to hear from on this, and you definitely do not want me involved.” And —

AMY GOODMAN: And what about —

WILL BUNCH: Yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: Will, what about fracking? Mehmet Oz says that John Fetterman has switched his position on fracking, used to be against it, now he says he’s for it.

WILL BUNCH: I mean, to me, to be honest, the whole fracking thing was the most disappointing part of the debate for a couple — because I think it’s a very important issue. You know, I mean, basically, both candidates, in terms of what they said last night, gave a full-on endorsement of fracking. And there was basically no mention of climate change at all in the debate from either the moderators, which was bad, or from either candidate.

You know, I thought the second worst moment of the debate, aside from Oz’s abortion gaffe, was an answer he gave on the minimum wage, where he basically said he would do nothing legislatively to raise the minimum wage. And this is a huge issue in Pennsylvania, because the state minimum wage here is only $7.25, just like the national. And so we really depend on Washington to bail us out on that. And he said he wouldn’t do anything, but he also said the cure is just more fracking, which will create these magical high-paying jobs, which hasn’t been the case since the 2000s. And there was no mention of climate change throughout the debate.

You know, I wish — to me, I think the most disappointing moment on substance for Fetterman was the fact that he didn’t give a more nuanced answer on fracking, that he had a chance to address climate change and at least say that he supports more environmental regulation on fracking, which he does. You know, the truth is, the majority of Pennsylvanians oppose fracking, which is, I think, poorly understood by most political experts. So that was a bit of a disappointment, that moment.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to go to the part of the debate last night in Pennsylvania where John Fetterman and Mehmet Oz sparred over President Biden’s plan to offer student debt relief to millions of borrowers. This is Dr. Oz.

DR. MEHMET OZ: John Fetterman’s approach, however, is not to deal with the unnecessarily high cost, but just to pay it. So, if you want to pay students who didn’t pay their loans back, basically what John Fetterman and Joe Biden are arguing for is for plumbers who didn’t go to college and couldn’t, for a bunch of reasons, afford it, to pay the bills of lawyers who went to graduate school and haven’t paid their debt back. I don’t think that’s right for the American people.

LISA SYLVESTER: Let me just ask specifically, with the plan to ease student loan debt, the debt forgiveness of $10,000, $20,000 for Pell Grant recipients, do you support that position?

LT. GOV. JOHN FETTERMAN: I do absolutely support that. I believe, like I said, it’s about helping young learners be able to get a better start, you know, getting off in the start of their life. And I do believe that, and I believe a majority of Americans support that, as well, too.

AMY GOODMAN: That last answer, John Fetterman. Well, Will Bunch, you’ve written a whole book on this subject, After the Ivory Tower Falls: How College Broke the American Dream and Blew Up Our Politics — and How to Fix It. You look at how Americans came to owe $1.7 billion [sic] in student loans. Put what they’re saying in context.

WILL BUNCH: Yeah. Well, I mean, the bottom line is this: I mean, both of them could have and should have given a few more specifics, but Fetterman supports student debt relief, and Mehmet Oz opposes student debt relief. I mean, again, if you want to focus on the issues, I mean, I think that’s the important takeaway for voters. You know, Oz’s answer was not good. I mean, he gave kind of the standard Republican trope about — or not trope; I mean, college administrators are somewhat overpaid. But even addressing that problem is only a drop in the bucket when you’re talking about the debt crisis, which is $1.7 trillion, which is just an astronomical figure.

He also said a line which I thought should have gotten more attention, which is he thought his solution to making college more affordable was to have more electronic classes, which, you know, if you remember the height of the COVID era, that was the biggest complaint from students and administrators, was the sterileness of trying to do college online. And yet Oz was proposing this as an answer for college as opposed to embracing liberal education and what that can do for our young people. So, I thought Oz’s answer was terrible. I mean,, I would have liked to have seen more specifics, again, from Fetterman, but I think Fetterman’s — again, his heart is in the right direction, in that he wants student debt relief, and he wants to make college affordable for more people.

AMY GOODMAN: You have this latest news this week, the Republican-led states, a number of them, are attempting to stop Biden from implementing his plan of debt relief for some people. You write in your book about the “college problem,” as you put it, or the college-noncollege divide. How do you see the college divide impacting the midterms, and also the presidential election in 2024?

WILL BUNCH: I think it could have a big impact on the midterms. You know, I mean, I think the —

AMY GOODMAN: Explain what you mean.

WILL BUNCH: Yeah. Well, yeah, I think — no, I think the hope is that young voters are paying attention to this and that they understand that one party is trying to block student debt relief, as you said. I mean, the Republicans not only think it’s a bad idea, but now you have a number of Republican officials going into court and trying to block this plan that would be $10,000 or even $20,000 of debt relief for millions of young and middle-aged people. Annd President Biden is the one who finally took some action, for the first time in decades, really, for the first time since the Reagan era, to make higher education a public good, so to admit that we all have a responsibility for making higher education affordable and an option for our young people. So, I think voters should see a contrast. You know, whether the Democrats can get that message out and energize young voters, who historically don’t turn out in high rates in the midterms, to make them see that contrast and to get them to vote.

You know the Republicans are trying to play on working-class resentment. They’re saying that plumbers and taxi drivers and people without bachelor’s degrees — and remember, 63% of Americans do not have a bachelor’s degree. And they’re trying to play on class resentments about debt relief to help them at the polls. But I think there’s a real misunderstanding of who gets student loans. I mean, frankly, a lot of people who live in these red districts either are struggling with student loans or would like to have access to college that they’re being denied right now. So, I think, on the Republican side, I think there’s a fundamental misunderstanding of young people, the college situation and who’s getting these loans.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to break. I also want to — as you corrected me, $1.7 trillion, that is the student debt issue in this country. We’re talking to Will Bunch, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and national columnist for The Philadelphia Inquirer. His book, After the Ivory Tower Fails. When we come back, Will is going to stay with us, but we’re going to look at Penn State’s cancellation of a student event featuring Gavin McInnes, founder of the far-right Proud Boys. We’ll be joined by one of the students who opposed him being able to speak. And then we’re going to look at the governor’s race that involves a candidate that chartered buses to go to the insurrection on January 6th. Stay with us.

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