Karl Rove started a firestorm -- he's good at that -- when comments he made at a recent event about Hillary Clinton's health were reported in "Page Six," a New York Post gossip column.
“Thirty days in the hospital? And when she reappears, she’s wearing glasses that are only for people who have traumatic brain injury? We need to know what’s up with that," Rove said at a conference near Los Angeles late last week in reference to Clinton's hospitalization in late 2012 to deal with a blood clot in the brain. (She was initially hospitalized Dec. 30, 2012, and released Jan. 2, 2013) After "Page Six" headlined their piece "Karl Rove: Hillary Clinton may have Brain Damage," Rove fought back in an interview with WaPo's Karen Tumulty."Of course she doesn't have brain damage," Rove said, adding, however, that Clinton endured "a serious health episode" for which "she is going to have to be forthcoming" if she runs for president.
Clinton spokesman Nick Merrill said that "Karl Rove is still all over the map and is continuing to get the facts wrong. But he doesn’t care, because all he wants to do is inject the issue into the echo chamber, and he’s succeeding."
Putting aside the "brain damage" debate, which seems like a bit of a red herring, Rove -- perhaps purposely -- has injected a very serious question into the public debate (and one that has been bubbling just under the surface for months): Is Clinton's health and, by extension, her age -- she is 66 now and will be 69 on election day 2016 -- a legitimate topic of debate if she runs in 2016?
Yes, says Alex Castellanos, a prominent Republican consultant. "[Ronald] Reagan had to talk about his age and health," noted Castellanos. "[John] McCain had to talk about his age and health. Why shouldn't Hilary Clinton? Because of her gender? Welcome to the politics of equality."
Castellanos is right in his historical reference points. Reagan battled age questions during the 1980 presidential campaign --- at 69 he was the oldest person ever elected to the presidency -- and again in 1984. In his reelection race, Reagan was asked during a debate whether age should be an issue in the race: "I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent's youth and inexperience," Reagan famously said of his Democratic opponent Walter Mondale.
In 1996, Time magazine ran a cover story that asked the question of whether Bob Dole was too old to be president. (Dole was 73 in 1996.) Twelve years later, the issue came up again when McCain -- 72 at the time -- emerged as his party's presidential nominee in 2008. McCain had the double whammy of advanced age and health issues -- he had endured a high-profile battle with skin cancer in the past -- but the public seemed generally unconcerned about his capacity to do the job. A Gallup poll conducted in February 2008 showed just one in five respondents thought McCain was too old to be president, a lower number than had said the same about Dole in 1996.
Tom Daschle, a former Senate majority leader, insisted that the examples of Reagan and McCain reveal that the age issue is less important to voters than some people assume. "McCain and Reagan put the age issue to rest," argued Daschle. "In fact, those who raise it may face charges of sexism."
A quick survey of political operatives from both sides of the aisle made clear that how you feel about Clinton's health and age as issues depends, in large part, on which party with which you align yourself. (This is true on roughly every issue debated in the political space these days.)
"I do think her health, not her age, could very well be an issue," said Fred Davis, a California-based Republican consultant. "There have long been whispered rumors that she has health issues, not related to that fall. Are they true? Who knows, but we all know a presidential run will press that issue in its most finite detail." Added Dave Carney, a New Hampshire-based GOP strategist: "Every senior citizen running for the toughest job in the world faces these issues. One with health issues such as she has faced in the past will make those issues more front and center than with a younger candidate."
Democrats scoffed at that notion. "It's kind of difficult for a party that worships Reagan and reveres [Dick] Cheney to plausibly say Hillary is too old or sick," said Democratic operative Paul Begala. "If they keep this up, the GOP may actually reach zero in the women's vote." Steve McMahon, a longtime Democratic media consultant, said of Rove: "Comments like these demonstrate why so many Americans hate politics -- and why so many Republicans lose elections."
First, Clinton will have to answer questions about her health/age -- as any candidate of her age (and with a relatively recent issue of a blood clot on the brain) would have to do. That process may well mean that she explains more than she has to date about her fall and subsequent hospitalization in late 2012. But it's entirely possible she could do that in the context of how the episode focused her or reminded her of her mortality or any number of other positive spins that could work in the narrative of a presidential campaign.
Second, Rove is not exactly the ideal messenger to carry the "Is Hillary healthy enough to be president?" argument. "Having Karl Rove lead the charge will only solidify Democratic support behind Hillary, and risks alienating independents who think personal attacks are out-of-bounds," said one Democratic consultant granted anonymity to speak candidly about the political impact from Rove's comments.
In the end, Clinton's health and age will only be an issue if there is a re-occurrence (or some new occurrence) of a medical problem that suggests she may not be able to carry out the duties of the office. If Clinton is actively moving around the country -- speaking, raising money and, eventually, campaigning -- without incident, the age and health questions will likely disappear.