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Mehmet Oz’s campaign for the Pa. Senate race is rock bottom for a GOP running on empty | Will Bunch

Mehmet Oz's braindead Senate campaign shows freedom's just another word for nothing left to say.

Screen capture image from a campaign video in which Mehmet Oz, a celebrity doctor, announced his campaign for Senate in Pennsylvania. The video was released on Tuesday, Nov. 30, 2021.
Screen capture image from a campaign video in which Mehmet Oz, a celebrity doctor, announced his campaign for Senate in Pennsylvania. The video was released on Tuesday, Nov. 30, 2021.Read moreCampaign Video

My first sighting of celebrity doctor and longtime New Jerseyan Mehmet Oz in Pennsylvania was his obligatory one-minute candidate bio ad. (Well, OK, I was sitting on my couch in Delco watching the Philadelphia Union playoff game ... does that count?) By the end of the ad, I still felt like the newest GOP entry in our state’s 2022 Senate field still hadn’t been properly introduced.

“They took away our freedom without making us safer, and as a heart surgeon I know how precious human life is,” Oz says, suddenly holding an adorable baby. That’s the money quote in a slickly produced ad that says nothing about how this controversial doctor would have handled the pandemic differently. It also steals the rhetoric of the anti-abortion movement (one he’s apparently embraced in recent days, after speaking out strongly for abortion rights as recently as 2019).

“Freedom” is clearly the buzzword of the Oz campaign. “I want liberty, and freedom, and that means limited government,” Oz told Fox News’ Sean Hannity on the night he launched his campaign. Or — put another way — he wants an abstract political idea, a similar abstract concept, and a U.S. Senate that will enforce those by continuing down the path of doing nothing, even as the American middle class falls farther and farther behind.

The great Kris Kristofferson, channeled by the muse Janis Joplin, famously wrote that “freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.” But for a modern Republican Party fueled by the hot air of cultural grievance and yet completely out of gas when it comes to policy ideas, freedom’s just another word for nothing left to say — and now Mehmet Oz has parachuted in from his North Jersey estate as its avatar.

Indeed, Oz’s first post-launch political maneuver, aside from using Google Maps to find a few county Republican headquarters, was a pure anti-elite grievance play. He posted a bizarre internet attack ad against The Inquirer because of its policy — the same rule for every other physician on the planet — of not calling him by his beloved brand name of “Dr. Oz” in headlines or the body of articles. “I won’t be cancelled,” the candidate declares.

I’m assuming that his ads detailing his plan for student loans (young people in Oz’s newly adopted Pennsylvania carry the largest debt burden of any state) or expanding health care (since he is a doctor, after all) are still in the can?

» READ MORE: Live free and die: Inside the bizarre political philosophy of America’s unvaccinated | Will Bunch

OK, that was clearly sarcasm. You won’t find more than boilerplate policy ideas on Oz’s website. His economic policy, for example, is basically undoing whatever President Biden has done. That’s because, frankly, no one is looking too hard for more. You could argue that Oz is the next downward descent on the ladder that started with Ronald Reagan, a former actor who knew how to hit a mark, and plunged with reality TV’s Donald Trump — the apotheosis of media critic Neil Postman’s prescient 1985 prediction that democracy would die, not from totalitarian censorship but from an entertainment-besotted citizenry amusing ourselves to death.

This past week, Rep. Dan Crenshaw of Texas — a stalwart of the modern Republican Party — issued a somewhat shocking, if obvious, critique of his own party. He said that it’s rife with “performance artists [who] are the ones that get all the attention, the ones you think are more conservative because they know how to say slogans real well, they know how to recite the lines that they know our voters want to hear.” Crenshaw was actually talking more about the party’s extremist bomb throwers like Reps. Lauren Boebert or Madison Cawthorn than the Chance-the-Gardener-Being-There nothingness of a candidate like Oz, but point taken.

But what’s especially wild about the situation in Pennsylvania’s Republican Party right now is that the race to replace retiring GOP Sen. Pat Toomey — which could tilt the balance of power in a Senate now split 50-50 — is dominated in the primary by candidates who aren’t from here.

In addition to New Jersey’s Oz — who registered to vote last year at his in-laws’ home in Montgomery County and still posts on social media from his North Jersey manse overlooking Manhattan — establishment Republicans have desperately been trying to recruit Connecticut hedge fund mogul David McCormick. Unlike Oz, McCormick can at least claim growing up in the Trump country of north-central Pennsylvania. That’s in addition to former ambassador Carla Sands, who left Pennsylvania after college to become a civic presence in Los Angeles, where she recently sold her Italian-style villa for $19.5 million.

It seems crazy — can’t the nation’s 5th largest state produce a Republican candidate who actually lives here? You could blame the chaos on the sudden withdrawal of the Trump-endorsed, one-time front-runner Sean Parnell, whose record as a war veteran and a stalwart defender of the 45th president couldn’t withstand ugly allegations of spousal abuse in a child-custody trial.

But I’d argue that it’s a lot easier to build a resume that might impress voters by doing literally anything else than serve as an active member of the Pennsylvania Republican Party, where the two most popular activities seem to be cutting politically popular programs or ignoring the daily concerns of middle-class voters. After all, the state’s two most prominent GOPers of the last decade have been Toomey, who hastened the end of his career with his wishy-washiness toward Trump, and former Gov. Tom Corbett, who was denied a second term after slashing money for K-12 education as well as higher ed.

It’s even harder to imagine any claim to national leadership from the current motley GOP crew in Harrisburg. Under more than a decade of Republican domination of the Pennsylvania Legislature, next to nothing has been done for the plight of everyday workers, with the minimum wage stuck at the national figure of $7.25 an hour. Nothing says actual “freedom” better than the ability to feed your family.

But lawmakers’ performance amid the COVID-19 pandemic has shown the true meaning of “limited government.” It reveals its ugly face in the obsession to undercut not just mask mandates but the very notion of public-health measures for the common good. This, even as infection rates and hospitalizations spike yet again in the Pennsylvania counties with the lowest vaccination rates, which are by and large represented by these do-nothing Republicans. The only reason that Crenshaw’s “performance artist” dig feels off for Harrisburg is that these clowns aren’t even entertaining.

Now comes Mehmet Oz in a white, made-for-TV lab coat to deliver the exact same message as these rural lawmakers in their rumpled suits: that the best response to a pandemic is to live free and die. That’s the consequence of a political party built entirely around its resentment of experts who push their ideas on what a common, caring public should do, as well as the complete rejection of both real expertise and actually doing anything — leaving only empty words and rising mortality.

As our modern-day Oz ventures out from behind the curtain of his Manhattan TV sound set to travel down blue highways in search of Conshohocken or McKees Rocks, maybe he will find the cost of freedom — or a pandemic’s warped definition of it — buried in the sand.

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