Fetterman’s health at center of petty political rhetoric

Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons | John Fetterman, a candidate for U.S. Senate from Pennsylvania, is still recovering from a stroke he had in May.

Simon Jaronski | Staff Writer

Oct. 27, 2022

The battle for Pennsylvania’s vacant Senate seat is shaping up to be one of the most important in the country, with control of the upper chamber likely riding on the ability of either John Fetterman or Mehmet Oz to pull ahead in the 12 days before the Nov. 8 election.

Lately, a troubling issue has cast a pall over Fetterman’s once-robust electoral prospects. The stroke he had immediately before May’s primary election has become fodder for the Oz campaign, Republicans nationwide and even journalists to raise doubts about his ability to serve in office.

With Tuesday’s highly criticized debate performance in the rearview mirror, it seems unlikely that he will be able to shake the allegation that he is unfit before the midterm election. How should Pennsylvania residents react to that charge? Is Fetterman’s condition something to worry about?

This is, of course, nothing new. Health scares and their potential to disrupt otherwise impeccable partisan credentials have a time-honored place in the annals of American political lore. Woodrow Wilson’s wife, Edith, assumed executive duties well beyond her capacities as first lady. After her husband had a debilitating stroke in 1919, the American people were deliberately kept in the dark about the status of presidential affairs and the wellbeing of their leader.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s unprecedented four-term presidency, built around the consensus issues of the Great Depression and World War II, was no doubt facilitated by discarding the transparency which we rightly view as indispensable to responsible government.

Dwight Eisenhower’s 1955 heart attack raised serious concerns about his reelection prospects. John F. Kennedy lied to the American public about Addison’s disease. Donald Trump’s Covid-19 diagnosis provoked widespread anxiety throughout America. Today, folks on the left and right express unease about President Joe Biden’s various gaffes and non-sequiturs, supposedly harbingers of a creeping decline and an unaccountable executive branch.

These incidents are recalled in light of our government’s crucial obligations of accountability, which are enshrined in historical memory and tradition. The electoral process, as a pathway to public trust, should be held to the same standards. This is the core of representative democracy.

Fetterman’s health, however, has been seized upon by conservatives to bypass the debate over substance and policy, so often inconvenient to candidates who instead seek to diminish their opponents with a now-familiar playbook of moral criticisms. Of course, the Pennsylvania race and the depths of astounding adolescence into which both candidates have sunk should be insulting to the state’s residents.

The Oz campaign has managed to become resurgent in the polls with a uniquely uninspiring political platform, trying desperately to court Pennsylvania voters with a series of head-scratching appeals to humble middle-class life. Fetterman’s campaign has equally embraced the disregard for gravitas that now dominates American political theater. Mounting an incessant trolling campaign against Oz and his ritzy lifestyle has certainly not done wonders for our collective democratic intelligence.

It seems that the question raised about Fetterman’s health has been done so disingenuously. Legitimate concerns about responsible governance and the importance of disclosure are not the goals of the Oz campaign. Instead, they seek to provide Pennsylvania citizens with a crude, cognitive shortcut that signifies an inability to serve (the Republican Party is capitalizing on the widespread anxiety about Biden’s decline to encourage down-ballot voting).

We can rest assured that Fetterman’s recently released doctor’s clearance is legitimate. Yet, if the minor segment of Pennsylvania citizens who remain undecided choose to make his ability to serve a factor in casting their ballot, so be it. Those of us who value informed political decision-making and thoughtful, local politics can only hope that this choice is made with concerns of accountability in mind, and not with the same cruel indifference to rationality that has come to dominate the conversation about Biden.

Is asking for good faith policy discourse truly too much? The demographic of suburban women who could determine the outcome of this election have shown their ability to engage with concrete policy issues from a unique moral standpoint, both in their 2018 and 2020 rejections of Trumpism. If Oz and Fetterman abandon the rigid typologies of middle-class America informing their campaigns, and drop the synthetic populism they both purvey, perhaps they would see that Americans are capable of making political judgments outside of modern-day smear politics.

We still have enough common sense to not let insensitive invocations of mental and physical wellbeing define our political decisions.

It hardly seems contestable that a healthy democracy depends on substantive issues receiving some degree of deliberation. The American people can do better, as can their representatives.