Why you should care
Because health will be a key undercurrent of the 2020 campaign — whether the candidates like it or not.
The brakes have been cut, and the impeachment train is barreling down the tracks. The burning question for Congress now turns to the messy details. Will the House move to impeach President Donald Trump for the Ukraine arms-for-investigation-announcements scandal alone, or try to tack on more offenses from a seemingly bottomless grab bag?
A group of psychiatrists is trying to force a more delicate question onto the impeachment agenda: Is Trump mentally fit for office?
An open letter this week from mental health professionals warns about the harm caused by Trump’s “narcissistic rage” and that, as impeachment proceeds: “Failing to monitor or to understand the psychological aspects, or discounting them, could lead to catastrophic outcomes.” Dr. Bandy X. Lee of Yale, a leader of the group that has been raising hackles about Trump on mental health grounds since 2017, says the letter was co-signed by 750 mental health professionals as of Friday morning. Lee says House Judiciary Committee staff have agreed to distribute the letter to members, but she has not heard whether it would be entered into the official record.
It’s a hugely controversial and consequential subject: Their diagnostic evidence comes from Trump’s public activities and the Mueller Report, not a full clinical examination. In so doing the mental health professionals have broken the so-called Goldwater rule against such armchair diagnoses of public figures, created by the American Psychiatric Association after psychiatrists warned about the mental fitness of 1964 Republican presidential nominee Barry Goldwater. Lee and her cohorts say their “duty to warn” trumps the rule. The president’s defenders, in turn, have diagnosed the group with “Trump Derangement Syndrome.”
What we do know is that the always touchy subject of health — both mental and physical — will play a major role in the 2020 election.
Trump, 73, last month made a surprise trip to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center for what the White House described as simply part of his physical, even though the trip was highly out of the ordinary. Trump has not seemed much different in public lately, but the president’s ability to perform for his signature lengthy, meandering campaign rallies will be closely scrutinized … not to mention his fast-food-heavy diet and golf-based exercise routine.
And then there’s the Democratic field. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, 70, on Friday released a note from her doctor, Beverly Woo, stating: “Senator Warren is in excellent health and has been throughout the 20 years I have served as her physician.” Woo revealed that Warren’s only medical condition is hypothyroidism, or an underactive thyroid gland, for which she takes medication. The release seemed designed to set the bar for her primary rivals, particularly the other septuagenarian front-runners: former Vice President Joe Biden, 77, and Sen. Bernie Sanders, 78. Sanders recently had a heart attack that kept him off the campaign trail for a bit, but he has emerged seemingly stronger politically, including a peppy debate performance meant to show him as the same ol’ Bernie.
Biden’s myriad verbal miscues have at times been discussed as a sign of mental decline, though Atlantic writer John Hendrickson recently made a compelling argument that they are lingering evidence of a childhood stutter. Physically, Biden did challenge an Iowa man to a pushup contest on Thursday when the man challenged the work of Biden’s son Hunter in Ukraine. Alas, the contest did not materialize.
Trump, Sanders and Biden would all break presidential age records; Ronald Reagan was 73 when elected to a second term. That means health will be an undercurrent throughout the race.
But how does one define the physical and mental capacity needed to handle the office of the presidency? It’s the world’s toughest job in some ways, but it’s not exactly coal mining. Think of it as an abnormally high-stress desk job with extensive travel and some work-from-home privileges.
In the end, the only diagnosis that matters on fitness for office comes from the voting public. Perhaps we should start with the pushup challenge.