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On May 13, John Fetterman, the lieutenant governor of Pennsylvania who is running for an open Senate seat, had a stroke. It kept him off the campaign trail for 13 weeks. When he reemerged in public at an Aug. 12 rally, there were signs that he wasn’t back to his former self. Americans are used to seeing their politicians change their skill sets over the course of careers. This was just a hyper-paced switch that caught even some Fetterman fans by surprise.
Fetterman is but one of three prominent Democrats to have a stroke this year. When Sen. Ben Ray Luján of New Mexico had one on Jan. 27, he spent five weeks away from the office to work on his recovery. When his colleague from Maryland, Sen. Chris Van Hollen, faced a similar challenge during a speech on May 16, he took three weeks away returning on June 7.
But unlike Luján, who won his seat in 2020, and Van Hollen, whose re-election this fall is largely seen as a formality, Fetterman is a nominee in one of the most competitive Senate seats in the country. Which means voters deciding between Fetterman and Republican nominee Mehmet Oz have to consider just how much—if at all—Fetterman’s health matters under heightened circumstances.
No candidate likes to be poked and prodded. Even the most transparent politicians expect—often unrealistically—some level of privacy. Fetterman has insisted that the public was made aware of his stroke when it happened, so there’s no need for him to make his medical records or doctors accessible to reporters. That puts voters in a frankly unfair position. In the absence of hard facts from medical professionals, they can’t help but make their own amateur assessments based on whatever clues they can glean from his public appearances. It might not be to Fetterman’s advantage.
It’s no secret that Fetterman is using a closed-captioning system during interviews and will deploy it next week at his debate against Oz. If Fetterman is successful and arrives in Washington, it’s not expected to be an issue for staffers to install a similar system at his seat in hearing rooms or the Senate floor to help him better understand what he’s listening to but having trouble processing in real time. As TIME’s Mini Racker reports, this is a normal accomodation for those recovering from a stroke.
Fetterman’s critics have treated it as a potentially disqualifying development. The ableist privilege may have actually helped Fetterman, who raised $1 million after his first in-person interview in which he was clearly using closed captioning. It was, put bluntly, dumb politics: imagine telling voters that a deaf county official should be removed because she required an ASL interpreter, that a disabled veteran couldn’t serve in the Senate because she needed a wheelchair, or that a blind governor couldn’t handle the work because aides had to break his briefing book into five-minute audio clips that were sent to his voicemail. We make such small tweaks all the time.
But there’s a gut issue here as well: the mean-spirited nature of our politics makes it easy to dehumanize enemies, even those whose brains were bleeding not that long ago. And, especially when done by a doctor on the ballot, it’s not a good look.
The Senate is used to adapting to senators’ changing needs. Sen. Tim Johnson had a stroke in 2006 during a conference call with reports just weeks after Democrats claimed a majority; his exit from the Senate could have thrown control to Republicans, but adjustments were made, such as moving his desk to near the Senate entrance so he could access it with a scooter at work. Colleagues learned to reach for his left hand to greet him.
Sen. Mark Kirk was away from the Senate for most of 2012 when he had a stroke, and when he returned dramatically in early 2013, then-Vice President Joe Biden was there to greet him and join him for the 45 steps up the front of the Capitol using a cane.
Biden’s role in that moment was weighted with additional meaning, given the pair of strokes he suffered in 1988. While working out in the Senate gym, he suffered sharp pain in his neck and a lingering headache; his doctor prescribed a neck brace for a pinched nerve. Then, when alone in Rochester, N.Y., for a speech, he had another sharp pain, leaving him unconscious for five hours on his hotel room floor. He felt well enough to fly home to Delaware, but barely. Jill Biden insisted he go to the hospital, where doctors diagnosed him with an aneurysm; a priest gave the then-Senator Catholic Last Rites. He returned to the Senate after seven months.
When Biden became Barack Obama’s running mate in 2008, a core group of reporters got a 12-hour heads-up on a Sunday that the next day, a little after noon, they’d have five hours of access to Biden’s records from that era totalling 49 pages. A doctor—who had donated to the Obama campaign and had not examined Biden—debriefed reporters about his conversation with Biden’s doctor. (By contrast that year, Obama released a summary of his health, which the rival campaign of Sen. John McCain described as “a one-page doctor’s note.” McCain’s campaign released almost 1,200 pages covering his health record from 2000 to 2008, and a separate 1,500 pages in his pre-1999 file during a first run.) When Trump ran in 2016 and again in 2020, he ran the Obama playbook of a summary statement with minimal details. Naturally, the TV-obsessed Trump taped an episode of Oz’s TV show to tout the news.
Now? The Fetterman campaign’s posture just isn’t cutting it given his current situation. They seem to be asking everyone to just trust them. A lot of Democrats in Washington, and possibly more than a few voters in Pennsylvania, are responding: not so much.
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