Senate candidate John Fetterman’s recovery from a stroke — and the Pennsylvania Democrat’s pronounced struggles in Tuesday’s debate — have thrust our political world into some uncomfortable questions and uneasy assessments.
What bearing should candidates’ auditory and verbal problems have on evaluating their fitness to serve? How do we talk about something that could affect their service, though we’re not sure precisely how much or in what ways? How do you avoid overanalyzing surface-level issues without knowing what lies beneath? And how much should we accept the say-so of the candidate’s doctor that the candidate is fit to serve without getting more-extensive medical records, which Fetterman has declined to provide?
Tuesday’s debate effectively ended any notion that the issue might fade into the background. While Fetterman’s GOP opponent, Mehmet Oz, didn’t proactively spotlight Fetterman’s condition, its surface-level indicators were plain for everyone to see. Fetterman was halting in his delivery, misspoke repeatedly and, rather than engage with questions asking for policy specifics, largely kept his answers to broad political positions. And Oz’s high-profile supporters were happy to connect the dots in ways Oz didn’t, explicitly pitching Fetterman as unfit to serve because of what his debate performance demonstrated.
That approach has come with plenty of rationalizing and whataboutism. If the roles were reversed, you can bet Democrats would do the same, some Republicans have argued. Some have even pointed to the closest analogue we have to the situation: then-Sen. Mark Kirk’s 2016 run for reelection after the Illinois Republican suffered a severe stroke — and specifically the Chicago Tribune’s decision to endorse against him, precisely because of the stroke.
But the Kirk example differs in some major ways, as even that endorsement demonstrated. And his stroke was far less discussed during the 2016 campaign — though not only because our politics were less bare-knuckled six short years ago.
It’s worth a history lesson and a comparison.
Kirk suffered what was, by most every account, a more severe stroke than Fetterman did. It happened in 2012, and he was gone from the Senate for nearly a year while he focused on his recovery — time Fetterman didn’t have this year. Even when Kirk did return, he required a wheelchair, and part of the left side of his body remained paralyzed.
Kirk decided to seek reelection in 2016, and his party supported that — in part because of his record of winning in blue-leaning areas and the dearth of credible GOP alternatives. But Kirk obviously struggled.
While his speech patterns weren’t as halting as Fetterman’s, what was most pronounced was his apparent lack of a filter. His aides insisted he had always been blunt, but he said things in public that repeatedly caught people off-guard and didn’t fit his reputation as a staid, moderate Republican.
There was the time in 2015 when he referred to Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), who is not married, as a “bro with no ho.” He spoke of closing the racial income gap “so that the Black community is not the one we drive faster through.” He claimed President Barack Obama’s attempts to forge a nuclear deal with Iran showed he wanted to “get nukes to Iran” and said Obama was “acting like the drug dealer in chief” when money was sent to Iran as prisoners were released. And perhaps most infamously, late in the 2016 campaign he responded to Purple Heart recipient and then-Rep. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), talking about her family’s centuries of military service, by saying, “I had forgotten that your parents came all the way from Thailand to serve George Washington.”
(That last comment was not only ugly but also nonsensical. While Duckworth’s mother was born in Thailand, her father’s side includes a long history of service in the U.S. military that does indeed trace back to the American Revolution. Kirk later apologized.)
But through all of it, media coverage invoked Kirk’s stroke as a potential factor relatively rarely. When it was mentioned, it usually was as B-matter toward the bottom of the story, with no direct causality implied. And neither the media nor Democrats dwelt extensively on the issue.
Duckworth did at one point say in August of the campaign year, “If you look at all of the things he’s said, I think he lacks the ability to control what he’s saying, and you can look at the numerous gaffes that he’s had over the years.” But that was more the exception. (Duckworth claimed her comment wasn’t about Kirk’s stroke.)
Some have pointed to the Chicago Tribune’s October 2016 endorsement of Duckworth as evidence that the stroke was a significant campaign issue — the implication being that the focus on Fetterman’s health is thus fair game. But as we wrote when that endorsement landed, the editorial was striking precisely because the stroke issue was largely unspoken up to that point:
The Tribune at the time also wrote a story about Kirk declining to release fuller medical records, a la Fetterman today. But it simply wasn’t a huge focus.
At the same time, that last paragraph in the pull-quote above demonstrates there was also perhaps a plainer reason — beyond decorum — for why there was little discussion of Kirk’s condition: He was an underdog, and Democrats were expected to win the seat.
While the race was often listed as a toss-up early on, by the time we got to the meat of the campaign, Duckworth was the clear favorite, sometimes leading by double digits in the polls. Kirk never led in a poll conducted after July 2016. And while the Senate majority hung in the balance that year, the two sides had at least half a dozen more-competitive races to focus on, rendering Illinois an afterthought. National Republicans largely left Kirk to fend for himself.
Had the race been in serious doubt and a Duckworth win been more important for the Democrats’ majority hopes? Perhaps the left and the media would have focused more on Kirk’s condition, and perhaps the question of whether his Thailand comments stemmed from it — he made them at a late-October debate, like Fetterman’s in Pennsylvania — would have engendered more of a discussion along the lines of what we’re seeing today. But it never happened, or at least not on a similar scale.
That example doesn’t make the focus on Fetterman illegitimate. Yes, our politics have evolved. Big political debates increasingly unfold independently of any particular outlet’s editorial decisions, and those debates can tend toward the ugly and speculative rather quickly. But politicians ability to communicate is part of running for and holding office, even if they might not suffer any underlying cognitive problems. Context is everything, as is reporting on what you know.
What’s evident is that we’ve crossed the Rubicon on this, through a combination of probably irreversible factors that weren’t present six years ago.