Sunday’s political news had me thinking about the latest string of Geico commercials: “If you’re Hillary Clinton, you unnecessarily keep things from the American people. It’s what you do.” It’s hard to know whether Clinton’s Sunday Stumbles ™ will impact the race in any serious way. The unfavorables of both candidates are so high that the needle may not shift significantly in either direction barring the appearance of a literal smoking gun (Donald Trump has, after all, suggested both he and Clinton could be capable of shooting people this election season). But it’s impossible to argue that Clinton’s decision not to preemptively reveal her pneumonia diagnosis led to the worst possible result.
Looking at before and after pictures of recent presidents is proof enough of the job’s stresses. The last two presidents especially appear to have aged years if not decades more than the length of their terms while presiding over a polarized nation that’s been on a perpetual war footing. I don’t even know if I think a candidate is obligated to reveal a pneumonia diagnosis if it’s not a chronic condition, but aside from a vague notion of privacy I’m not sure one can fashion a logical argument that candidates for the presidency—especially candidates that fall under the heading of senior citizens—should be allowed to keep secret matters of their health. But given Clinton’s penchant for privacy and a small, close knit circle of advisors I have no idea that the fashioning went something like this: “We won’t get credit for revealing the pneumonia, and the condition is easily treatable and will be cleared up before Election Day so let’s not reveal it.” The movie World War Z had an interesting notion in it; the Israeli representative meeting Brad Pitt’s character explains that his government instituted a rule that if the advisors unanimously agree on a course of action, someone must investigate the alternative. Clinton’s staff should include someone whose sole job is to spin out the worst case political scenario because what unfolded Sunday was almost that.
Rewind the Friday diagnosis and consider. Hillary Clinton learns she has pneumonia. Rather than follow her instincts to hide the news, she reveals it to the press on her plane: “The American people have a right to know about the health of those running for the highest office in the land.” The fringes that have been arguing about hidden Clinton ailments would take the revelation as truth, but her upfront choice to announce the diagnosis would likely keep that fringe argument from pilling into the mainstream. Additionally, while the press may not give her any credit, the average voter would finally get a glimpse of Hillary Clinton being preemptively truthful—revealing more information than she needed to because she thinks the American public deserve to have it. Trump either beats Clinton up for it—looking like a monster in the process—or does what he is doing now which is to leave the story to its own devices. There’s the added benefit of dropping the news on Friday afternoon and letting her rest over the weekend which likely means the story is likely out of the news by Monday. Worst case it’s a wash for Clinton. Best case a candidate who is seen as habitually untrustworthy looks honest and forthcoming.
What happened instead has to rank near that “worst case scenario” end of the spectrum that I’m sure didn’t receive near enough consideration. A skeptical electorate received one more reason to distrust Clinton—something that may not even matter given her historic levels of disapproval. Perhaps more damaging is that the incident vindicates Trump and his fringe supporters who have been spinning out conspiracy theories about her health for weeks. Speculation about Clinton’s health has been shoved into the realm of responsible journalism. There’s no question that this speculation will play into existing gender bias regarding a woman’s strength relative to a man. And contrary to Patton Oswalt and others, Clinton’s campaigning while ill—effectively going to work while ill—will not be seen as heroic by voters not already committed to supporting her because many Americans not only have gone to work while sick but have been in a position where they’ve had no choice.
Every day Clinton isn’t on the campaign trail is a day that Sunday’s incident is discussed. Once she returns, every long speech and arduous campaign day will be subjected to scrutiny because under the best circumstances pneumonia’s effects last more than one week. Like the email controversy, Clinton’s own actions have exposed her to a potential drip-drip-drip of ongoing negative coverage. Someone on Clinton’s staff better get charged with fighting the candidate’s tendency toward the secretive or she just might find out that losing a general election is worse than losing a primary.