Hillary Clinton is a politician with decades of experience in national government. Donald Trump is a reality star with decades of experience in finding ways to profit off of failed business ventures. Clinton has come to represent America’s political Establishment; Trump, middle America’s rage at that Establishment. Clinton is campaigning on a progressive domestic agenda that includes higher taxes on the wealthy, a public health-insurance option, a pathway to citizenship for the undocumented, more environmental and financial regulations, and a promise to appoint Supreme Court justices who will uphold abortion rights. Trump is campaigning largely on white identity politics and his own supernatural “toughness” — but also on tax cuts for the wealthy, the abolition of the Affordable Care Act, mass deportation, a moratorium on financial and environmental regulations, and a promise to appoint Supreme Court justices who will render abortion unconstitutional.
There has rarely, if ever, been such a stark disparity between the two major-party nominees in terms of personal experience, political style, and policy preferences. Which is why it’s so surprising that so many people are less concerned with those distinctions than they are with the question of which candidate is more susceptible to pneumonia.
On Sunday, the Democratic nominee staggered out of a 9/11 memorial service — and into a deeply unflattering viral video. After an unconvincing performance of vitality outside her daughter’s apartment, Clinton revealed that she had been diagnosed with pneumonia days earlier.
For weeks, Trump’s campaign had amplified conspiracy theories about Clinton’s secret health problems (and/or a Weekend at Bernie’s situation). But then Politico reported that Clinton’s medical condition had stopped being a fringe obsession and had begun a new life as a “legitimate campaign concern.” NBC News deemed it a “bigger campaign issue,” while the Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza pronounced Clinton’s health “perhaps the central debate in the presidential race” — at least for “the coming days.”
Now, look: When a presidential candidate is caught on film struggling to walk, then declares herself to be in fine health an hour later — only to reveal that she actually has had a respiratory illness for several days — that’s a story. Contrary to Clinton’s staunchest defenders in liberal media, it is not “sexist” for reporters to scrutinize the Democratic nominee’s medical condition. And the Clinton campaign handled this in a manner that appears almost designed to heighten the suspicion that the candidate is less healthy than she lets on, while amplifying concerns about her aversion to transparency. This is legitimate fodder for horse-race coverage.
But the idea that this is a legitimate “issue,” which voters should weigh when picking the candidate they’ll back this November, is just ludicrous.
Let’s stipulate that Clinton is gravely ill — heck, let’s say she has six months to live — what rational person would change his or her vote on the basis of that information?
In terms of his political experience and ideology, Tim Kaine is roughly identical to his running mate. He’s a centrist Democrat who has served for decades, in multiple levels of government, and boasts experience in shaping both domestic and foreign policy. It’s possible that Kaine is more moderate on abortion, but he’s still a senator with a 100 percent rating from Planned Parenthood running against a guy who wants Roe v. Wade overturned. If a voter favors Clinton over Trump on policy grounds, she should favor Kaine over him, too. If another voter values experience over ideology, substituting Kaine for Clinton should not change her calculus. Conversely, if you want, above all, to vote for an “outsider,” knowing that Kaine is likely to assume the presidency within the next four years should not swing your vote away from Trump.
Granted, if one assumed that a deathly ill Clinton would refuse to rescind power, even as her “short-circuiting” brain led her to make radical, uncharacteristic decisions — which her administration, nonetheless, felt compelled to carry out — then her medical condition would be a subject of legitimate concern. But that isn’t a super-plausible hypothetical. And, anyway, if your top priority is not electing a mentally erratic president who will refuse to take constructive criticism while using executive authority in dangerous ways, then, well, that assumption about Clinton’s health probably won’t make your decision any clearer.
It’s not unusual for debates about physical fitness to enter a general-election campaign. But in an era of party polarization — and/or in a cycle when the Republican Party nominates an authoritarian demagogue — such arguments are aggressively irrelevant.
To be sure, the electorate is not known for its perfect rationality. It’s possible that Clinton’s bout of illness, combined with her status as a female candidate, will make Trump’s charges of “weakness” potent to some voters. In covering the horse race, it’s reasonable to mention this possibility.
But if the mission of political journalism is to help voters make well-informed decisions at the ballot box, then reporters shouldn’t cast Hillary Clinton’s health as one of this campaign’s “central debates.” Because, unlike so many other debates in this race, it’s an argument without stakes.