By late September, Pennsylvania Democrats could no longer ignore U.S. Senate candidate John Fetterman’s lingering health problems. As a result of a stroke he suffered in May, the state’s lieutenant governor “sometimes speaks haltingly,” ABC News reported last month, “pausing in the middle of sentences and slurring his words.” Republicans were accused of having “seized” on Fetterman’s post-stroke recovery, prompting “medical experts” to “reject as reductive” the GOP’s powers of observation. But when Democrats began convening focus groups in search of ways to disarm the attacks on their candidate’s health, it foreclosed on the notion that only partisan Republicans were alarmed by Fetterman’s medical issues.
But not everyone is convinced that Fetterman’s cognitive impairments are a legitimate issue. Readers of Rebecca Traister’s New York profile of the Keystone State’s Democratic Senate nominee will likely get the impression that questions about Fetterman’s health challenges are untoward, and his difficulties are actually a campaign-trail asset.
Following his stroke, Fetterman avoided in-person events for much of the summer. But by Autumn, he was “powering through his convalescence,” Traister notes, providing Pennsylvanians with confirmation that “his physical condition” was “visibly improving.” She paints a portrait of an engaged candidate who personally oversaw the “deft tormenting of his opponent via Twitter,” a “brutally successful” barrage of memes culminating in a positive segment on The View. And yet, Traister concedes that questions about Fetterman’s competency kept coming up, and the polls kept tightening.
In Traister’s telling, the Fetterman campaign was at first opaque about the candidate’s status. But that has not been the case since at least June, when the campaign first released a doctor’s letter detailing his cardiological infirmities and his refusal to take necessary medications or see a doctor. Since then, the campaign has been transparent to a degree that should put voters’ concerns to rest.
“Lack of transparency about a health condition would be unsettling,” Traister admits. But “there has been ample coverage” of Fetterman’s health problems, she claims. What’s more, the campaign itself revealed that the candidate assented to “neurocognitive tests.” As it turns out, Fetterman—whose labored and staccato delivery on the stump is impossible to ignore, who insists that the Philadelphia “Eagles are much better than the Eagles,” and who will be “kicking balls in the authority” if elected—falls “into the normal range” on the cognition spectrum.
“There’s no great mystery about whether or how well Fetterman can speak,” Traister writes. “You can watch him do so regularly on television.” Indeed, it’s also clear that the candidate struggles to “quickly process what he hears,” which is why he requires live closed-captioning services when conducting interviews. But even after acknowledging these deficiencies, the author castigates newspapers for “pushing for further documentation” about Fetterman’s condition “with some of the energy once applied to Hillary’s emails,” while “right-wing carnival barkers treat complete medical records as they did Obama’s birth certificate.”
These disparate and entirely unrelated grievances correspond to each other only in the most partisan minds.
Traister concludes with an ominous note, though, as she attempts to view the candidate through her “committed feminist” brother’s eyes. He watched Fetterman’s performance at a September rally—where the candidate famously announced that his new name is “John Fetterwoman!” To Traister, Fetterman “did fine” and the rally “went well.” But for her brother, the experience was excruciating. He related “how scared and uncomfortable he felt” watching the candidate talk, fearing that any mental hiccup would become ordnance to be deployed in the next meme war. It turns out Traister’s feminist brother just isn’t feminist enough.
“I wondered if my job, which has involved sitting exactly that way through every public appearance of the women in politics I’ve covered — understanding that any single slip or weird facial expression would be used to make them look weak or radical or dishonest or unhinged or stupid — had inured me to that feeling of raw and relentless exposure,” she wrote. “My brother, perhaps like Fetterman, isn’t used to it.”
Maybe Traister set out to defuse the potency of attacks on Fetterman’s faculties, but she never quite got around to it. He is impaired, yes, but asking too many questions about it is gauche. And if you’re discomfited by his performance on the campaign trail, your capacity to empathize with women in positions of power is conspicuously deficient. In the end, she comes around to the notion that Fetterman’s health complications are, in fact, a boon. “Fetterman has become even more familiar to voters, not because of his Everyman toughness but because of his struggles,” she insists. Voters know “what it’s like to recuperate from a health challenge.”
Traister doesn’t come right out and say it, but the pressure on partisan Democrats to avoid lending any credence to the the right’s attacks on Fetterman is as obvious as the candidate’s cognitive deficiencies. It’s easier and more satisfying to dismiss the charge as “leveraging ableism against a person with disabilities” and leave it at that. But that does nothing to disarm the allegation, and it doesn’t prevent keen onlookers from noticing the evidence of Fetterman’s condition. It only cuts off the conversation before partisan Democrats can get around to explaining why his condition is no big deal.
Traister admits that, given “how much is riding on this race,” Fetterman’s struggles have been “really, really scary.” But he gets better every week, and his story is an inspiring one, she says. It’s possible to rationalize yourself into that conclusion, but not as a consequence of emotional blackmail. Instead, voters are shamed for noticing that Fetterman, who should be recuperating, is being forced to perform a high-wire act for the benefit of his party and its ideological goals.