Bernie Sanders plans to carry his 2020 presidential campaign forward and to participate in the October 15 Democratic debate. The announcement that the Vermont senator does not intend to let treatment for the blockage of an artery slow him down—for long—came as little surprise to people who know him. If there is one constant in his now almost 50-year-long electoral journey from the fringes of American campaigning to the center of presidential debate stages, it is that Sanders sees politics as a mission that should not get bogged down with too much talk about the candidate’s personal concerns and challenges.
But, now, after a very public detour from the campaign trail to the Las Vegas hospital where he underwent what the headlines identified as “a heart procedure for a blocked artery,” Sanders faces a new challenge. The candidate who has never been particularly comfortable discussing himself in general or his health, in particular, should be prepared to talk about why—after “a medical emergency” that got a lot of attention—he is determined to return to the demanding work of running for president.
For Sanders, whose campaign shook the political scene Wednesday morning with an announcement that it was canceling events “until further notice,” his anticipated return to active campaigning is not a time to simply “get back on message” or to act as if nothing happened. Something did happen. Toward the end of a typically busy campaign day for a 78-year-old candidate who has run harder than anyone else in this year’s race, Sanders “experienced some chest discomfort” during a campaign event on Tuesday night. “Following medical evaluation and testing he was found to have a blockage in one artery and two stents were successfully inserted,” longtime aide Jeff Weaver explained in a Wednesday morning statement.
The news sparked a national conversation among politically engaged people—Sanders allies, Sanders critics, and Sanders agnostics (if there are any)—about the candidate’s health and his age, about whether he should keep campaigning and, if so, how quickly he should return to the trail. The conversation was genuine, and it took many directions. A lot of folks learned about stents. Comedian Sarah Silverman tweeted, “The whole campaign was Bernie with a blocked artery? Can you imagine the force he’s gonna be now with it unblocked?” Dr. Ron Waksman, an interventional cardiologist at MedStar Heart & Vascular Institute in Washington, offered the assurance, “This will give him more energy.”
Sanders and his supporters can quote the good doctor. But the candidate needs to do more than that. He should speak freely about what he’s just been through and about what he’s thinking with regard to it. He should answer questions before they’re asked.
“It shines a light on the age issue, but the age issue has always been there. It’s an issue for three of the leading candidates for the nomination,” says James Zogby, a longtime member of the Executive Committee of the Democratic National Committee who has been in and around presidential campaigns for decades. (Former vice president Joe Biden and Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, the other leading candidates, are 76 and 70, respectively. And, of course, President Trump is 73.) “People are talking about it,” adds Zogby, a Sanders backer. “So talk about it.”
Sanders has loosened up during a 2020 campaign that has seen him talk a bit more about his family and his own story. He has joked about his age on the trail, and he has inspired laughs because he’s been such a robust campaigner—and because of his notable appeal to young voters. He can keep doing so, just as he can speak seriously about the subject, in ways that challenge ageism, that teach and reveal and that respect the honest interest and concern of voters.
That doesn’t mean Sanders should talk any less about the issues and ideas that have attracted millions of supporters to his “not me, us” candidacy, and that have done so much to transform the discourse in the Democratic Party. Nor does it mean that he must take the discussion to absurd extremes of self-examination. There’s no need to be defensive. He should simply extend the conversation, make connections between what he’s been through this week and the issues he’s talked about for so long, and welcome Americans into a deeper dialogue. Sanders, who was reportedly talking with aides and preparing tweets on Wednesday, began to do this with a message to supporters that read:
Thanks for all the well wishes. I’m feeling good. I’m fortunate to have good health care and great doctors and nurses helping me to recover. None of us know when a medical emergency might affect us. And no one should fear going bankrupt if it occurs. Medicare for All!
That tweet got 333,000 likes in a day. So people are paying attention. The tweet also inspired conversations like the one of Fox, where Dr. Mehmet Oz mentioned that “half the doctors in America want Medicare for All.” (Dr. Oz also said that “in about a week [Sanders] can resume activities pretty aggressively.”)
On the campaign trail in recent months, Sanders has invited people who attend town hall meetings to talk about their health care struggles, as part of the discussion about the need to establish a single-payer health care system in the United States. Now, he has some stories of his own to tell—and he shouldn’t hesitate to do so. Nor should he hesitate to talk about the fact that lots of Americans have medical procedures and then have to go back to work. These choices can be hard, and they come with many pressures, many stresses. It’s not a sign of weakness for a candidate whose campaign is so wrapped up with the issue of health care policy to share his own experience and his own thinking about that experience. It’s an expression of strength and confidence.
Bernie Sanders really is more comfortable addressing the issues than talking about himself. But campaigns have a way of demanding more from candidates than they think they’re ready to give. In this case, Bernie Sanders can take charge of the discussion, acknowledge that he’s been through something, and talk about it with the great mass of Americans who are ready to hear what he has to say.