On Tuesday night, just days removed from acknowledging that he had suffered a heart attack less than a week ago on the campaign trail, Bernie Sanders said something remarkable.
“We were doing (in) some cases five or six meetings today, three or four rallies and town meetings and meeting with groups of people. I don’t think I’m going to do that. But I certainly intend to be actively campaigning. I think we can change the nature of the campaign a bit. Make sure I have the strength to do what needs to be done.”
It doesn’t take much reading in between the lines to conclude this: Sanders is scaling back his campaigning to protect his health. Which makes all the sense in the world! After all, he is a 78-year-old man who just had a heart attack. Keeping up a wildly hectic campaign schedule — speech after speech in multiple states in the course of a week or even a few days — is hugely difficult and stressful for anyone, much less someone in his position.
But this is politics. And while Sanders’ announcement makes perfect sense from a health perspective, it will only fuel questions about whether he is up to the job he is running for.
Remember that if Sanders is elected president next November, he will be the oldest person to win a first term in the White House by almost a decade! (Donald Trump currently holds that record; he was elected in 2016 at age 70.) There were already some concerns within the Democratic Party — although not among Sanders’ most ardent supporters — that nominating someone who would turn 80 very early in his first term would be a real risk. Now those concerns go from back-burner to front-burner.
Also, we are entering the most active and crucial period of the primary fight. There are less than four months between today and the Iowa caucuses. This is the time when the candidates need to be on the top of their games. When they need to be able to go into absolute overdrive in terms of their campaigning, fundraising etc. Not a time when you change the “nature” (in Sanders’ words) of the sort of campaign you are running.
Sensing that the Sanders statement about scaling back wasn’t going over well, campaign manager Faiz Shakir sought to put a brighter spin on things. ” As Bernie said, we are going to have an active campaign,” said Shakir. “Instead of a breakneck series of events that lap the field, we are going to keep a marathoner’s pace that still manages to outrun everyone else.”
Which, well, OK. There’s no question that prior to his heart attack, Sanders kept up a hugely full schedule of events. Anyone who ever spent a day or a week with him on the campaign trail always came back marveling about his energy — particularly given that he is 78. But again, this is the final turn and sprint of the race. For example, Sanders is now skipping Thursday’s CNN and Human Rights Campaign presidential town hall focused on LGBTQ issues. Ramping down — even slightly and understandably — isn’t the message you want to be sending to voters on the fence about who to vote for and in the process of making that decision.
The reality for Sanders is this: His campaign was already struggling to keep up with the surging Elizabeth Warren and the steady Joe Biden. This latest series of events — and his acknowledgment that he is changing the nature of his campaign — then complicates what looked to already be a difficult next few months for Sanders.
Make no mistake: His hardcore supporters will be for him — and reject the idea that his scaling back will mean anything for his chances of winning. But they aren’t the voters who will decide the identity of the nominee. And for those undecided voters, the last week — culminating with the scale-back announcement on Tuesday night — might be all they need to see and hear to be convinced that Sanders isn’t their guy.