Dr. Oz should be better at this. Sure, there was always something oleaginous about the daytime television doctor turned politician’s approach to medicine, in which “magical” pills were touted as miracle cures to problems like obesity and bad skin. But Oz was a daytime television fixture in large part because he had a penchant for selling quick fixes to complex, sometimes intractable problems. Worried about your weight? Just take this pill and watch the pounds fall away. He was a huckster, but he was also telegenic and seemingly down-to-earth. In an era that elevated another TV conman to the highest political heights—and in a political moment in which Republicans have seemed heading toward a wave election—why couldn’t Mehmet Oz be Pennsylvania’s next senator?
In the months since Oz won Donald Trump’s endorsement—which propelled him to victory in a competitive primary—very little has gone according to plan. In late July, Politico reported that “the National Republican Senatorial Committee raised concerns about Oz’s lackluster polling and fundraising on at least three separate occasions in recent weeks,” with one source noting that his high unfavorable numbers were “really freaking everybody out.” From April to the start of July, his Democratic opponent, Pennsylvania Lieutenant Governor John Fetterman, raised nearly nine times more money than Oz managed—and half of the $3.8 million Oz brought in was money he loaned his own campaign.
But the biggest problem with Oz’s candidacy is that he is an utter phony with a comical inability to conceal this fact from the public view. And this is surprising since hiding his obvious insincerity has hitherto been an important part of his skill set. Yes, Oz is an actual medical doctor—a cardiothoracic surgeon, at that. But his TV persona has always had a loose relationship with actual medicine. He has pushed quack pills and salves for years and been called out for it repeatedly; pressed by NBC News about criticisms he’s received he pointed out that his namesake television show was “not a medical show” and observed that in its logo the word “Dr.” was much smaller than “Oz.”
Oz was undoubtedly good on TV, but outside the warm embrace of daytime teevee cameras, he becomes wooden and stiff off-the-cuff. Fabulously wealthy—he owns 10 houses, even if he claims to only own two—he has a distinct Lucille Bluth vibe; ordinary things seem to confuse him. Another problem Oz faced in the battle to seem like a normal human in the Pennsylvania Senate race was the small matter of him not being from Pennsylvania. Oz had been—and by many accounts still very much is—a resident of New Jersey, a state despised by many Pennsylvanians.
It’s possible that things would be going better if Oz had a different opponent—another greasy TV host, perhaps, or better yet a conventional corporate Democrat. Instead, he’s facing Fetterman, a burly York County native with a penchant for wearing shorts in the winter. Authenticity is a fraught quality to assess in political campaigns, where almost everything is artifice, but Fetterman makes it easier to divine than most candidates for the U.S. Senate. He certainly has the knack for out-muscling Oz in the authenticity fight, and he clearly loves rubbing his hapless opponent’s nose in it. The contrast could not be more striking. The last two months—during which Fetterman has largely been off the trail recovering from a stroke—have not played out like a traditional political campaign. Rather, they’ve been an escalating series of ritual humiliations.
Fetterman has successfully, and hilariously, played up the fact that Oz is a carpetbagger with all kinds of eye-catching stunts: He’s flown a banner over the Jersey shore reading, “HEY DR. OZ, WELCOME HOME TO NJ! ♥ JOHN”; enlisted the help of Snooki and Bruce Springsteen guitarist Steven Van Zandt to roast the longtime Jersey resident; he’s even kick-started a campaign to get the doctor inducted into the Garden State’s Hall of Fame. Oz, repeatedly baited into responding in kind, constantly misses the mark. When Oz released a spooky black and white video accusing (a quite cool-looking) Fetterman of being a malevolent force in American politics, Fetterman made it his header image on Twitter.
Over the weekend, Oz once again humiliated himself, posting a video of himself shopping at “Wegners,” a grocery store that doesn’t exist. (He appears to have been in a Redner’s—and created a portmanteau with America’s finest grocery chain, Wegman’s.) In the video Oz is shown shopping for “crudités,” apparently in some attempt to draw attention to inflation—and the rising cost of said crudités—like a downcast version of Ina Garten. Aiming for the Barefoot Contessa’s trademark cinéma vérité, Oz awkwardly ambles down the produce aisle, half-heartedly picking up various vegetables. But rather than draw attention to prices, Oz instead makes it clear that he has no idea how grocery shopping works. The prices that he comes up with are wildly off the mark—for instance, he tells viewers that a head of broccoli costs $2, when that is the price per pound. Fetterman’s response to it all? “In PA we call this a … veggie tray.”
Dr. Oz’s social media posts and appearances have taken on the semblance of hostage videos—Fetterman is occupying acres of real estate in the celebrity doctor’s head. Try as they might to find a message that won’t result in Fetterman going viral with a savage riposte, they fail again and again. Fetterman’s overall message—that Dr. Oz is a fraud who doesn’t know anything about Pennsylvania or its voters—is reinforced every time. Authenticity campaigns rarely work, in large part because these battles often put one hyperpolished and micromanaged politician against another; but Fetterman is the perfect rival for Dr. Oz in this regard. He consistently field-dresses Oz, leaving him exposed.
Oz’s sad-sack travails have been such an acute failure so far that it can’t help but raise another question: Why is he doing this to begin with? His life was perfectly fine before he pretended to live in a state to run for Senate and care about political issues. His job as a quack doctor on TV made him a rich celebrity because the gatekeepers in that industry never really cared about applying scrutiny. Running for the Senate doesn’t afford you that advantage; as a consequence more people have caught on to the fact that the treatments he offers are ridiculous and he’s never faced much in the way of consequences for his quackery—instead, he’s been a rich celebrity. It’s really inexplicable that Oz decided the time was right to remake himself into a MAGA-adjacent foot soldier for Donald Trump’s reelection, especially when he clearly cares so little for politics and has no interest in policy. Oz descended from carefree heights of wealth and celebrity to trawl around Pennsylvania and get mocked and abused at every turn. Hope it was worth it!