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Commentary: The nagging doubts about Hillary's health

U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton leaves her daughter Chelsea’s home in New York, New York, United States September 11, 2016, after Clinton left ceremonies commemorating the 15th anniversary of the September 11 attacks feeling “overheated.”

REUTERS/Brian Snyder

Here’s someone you may hear over the next few days: Bob Torricelli, the New Jersey Democrat who dropped out of his Senate re-election race in October 2002.

Torricelli was hamstrung by an investigation into some shady fundraising practices, which meant his Republican challenger was suddenly deemed likely to win. Democrats panicked, dropped Torricelli, and dusted the mothballs off retired Sen. Frank Lautenberg, who took his place and easily won on Election Day.

So why are we talking about Torricelli? Could it be that Hillary Clinton, under pressure regarding stories about her health, might pull a similar maneuver, and let someone else represent her party in November?

On the face of it, that seems absurd, doesn’t it? Clinton is still the odds-on favorite to win, for one thing. And if she collapsed (or “stumbled,” to use the Democrats’ preferred terminology) just because she has a touch of pneumonia, then why would she drop out? Some antibiotics, a few days rest, and she’ll be fine. 

But let’s for a moment entertain a hypothetical: what if it’s worse than pneumonia? What if we see another episode? 

Clinton wouldn’t be the first presidential aspirant to mislead the public about health woes. Jack Kennedy, for example, marketed himself as an athlete but was so plagued by various ailments that he might not have lived through a second term. (Were it not for the back brace he was wearing to keep him upright in Dallas, in fact, there’s a chance Oswald never would have hit him with that second lethal bullet.)

So a certain skepticism is warranted about the physical fitness of presidential candidates. Yet Clinton’s health has been a forbidden subject for those of us in the respectable press, making it a story that existed only in the fever swamps of the internet. Talking about her physical fitness for the office would only “mainstream” theories that were unproven (or “debunked,” to use the media’s preferred terminology as of a week ago). 

It even had the taint of sexism: why imply that the woman in the race, who happens to be younger than her opponent, is the weaker one? 

Then, of course, we saw her being dragged into that van by agents who seemed distinctly non-shocked that the candidate needed such assistance. We saw her feet limply drag along into the vehicle, although her campaign still insists she never lost consciousness and recovered quickly. 

We were told she was overheated, then seven hours later, we were told it was pneumonia, diagnosed Friday. The pneumonia is non-contagious, as she had embraced children that weekend, and therefore perhaps unrelated to the bug that had just swept her office. It also apparently wasn’t that severe on Friday, the day she was diagnosed, when she seemed just fine. 

The cough last week? Allergies. It may have led to the pneumonia, or had a hand in it. Dehydration is another culprit, we’re told, as the candidate has an aversion to drinking water. The important thing is, her campaign tells us, is that she feels great. Much better. She is always feeling great and better, they tell us.

The truth is it’s probably just pneumonia, which can be mild, and she’ll recover swiftly. The safe bet is still that she comes back in a couple days, does well enough in the debates, and beats Trump in November.

But it’s understandable to have a piece of nagging doubt about Clinton’s health. The video is disconcerting -- the way she moves, the expressions of her handlers. After months of dismissing doubts about her physical fitness as expressions of lunacy, are we still supposed to assume that Clinton is as well as her campaign insists? There’s a sense they’re still being a bit dodgy with the facts, as with campaign spokesman Brian Fallon’s insistence to CBS News’ Nancy Cordes on Monday that she was helped into the van because she “felt a bit dizzy.” 

The (somewhat charitable) mainstream media consensus right now is that the Clintons are locked in a cycle of paranoia that begets press suspicion that begets more paranoia. Let’s assume that that’s what we’re seeing here. And then let’s remember what we saw on Sunday, those limp feet being dragged into the van. 

In any event, the Democratic Party rules are pretty clear on what happens if she drops out; the DNC would fill the vacancy, and you assume Tim Kaine might be the replacement nominee, this year’s Lautenberg. Or perhaps Joe Biden. Shorn of all that Clinton baggage, either would be a formidable opponent come November. Either could handily beat Trump.

NPR’s Cokie Roberts, among others, said Clinton’s pneumonia incident has the Democratic party “very nervously beginning to whisper about her stepping aside and finding another candidate.” Chances are this is just to make sure they have a game plan in the very unlikely case that they have a vacancy, because after the DNC has made a decision, there would be many legal realities to consider, such as ballot rules at the state level and what individual electors can and cannot do.

Again, it seems far-fetched that any of this could come to pass. But it’s squarely Clinton’s fault that we are talking about it to begin with. She hasn’t released the kind of extensive medical records that should be expected of presidential candidates of an advanced age, like John McCain, who set the gold standard for such disclosures back in 2008. “Voters deserve far more information from Clinton and Trump about their health than we have now,” the White House physician for George H.W. Bush, Dr. Burton Lee, told The New York Times last month.

Trump should release them too, of course – he’s a little older than Clinton, is likely clinically obese, and has what appears to be an awful diet. Should such a release prove too difficult -- McCain’s long tenure in the Navy made finding his record easier -- they can both submit to an evaluation from a panel of independent doctors, an idea Politico’s Dan Diamond recently floated. 

It’s true that, as in so many things this election season, there’s a risk here in holding Clinton to a higher standard than her opponent. But despite Trump’s obvious bad habits, it can be fairly reasoned that Clinton has a greater burden of proof when it comes to her health, what with her bloodclot and concussion a few years back, the at-times conflicting stories about both, the persistent coughing, and her thyroid condition.

He also hasn’t gone completely limp on the campaign trail yet, at least not on camera. Of all the worries we have about Trump, his physical health, rightly or wrongly, is pretty far down the list.

Clinton may wonder why we keep asking. It’s probably all benign. But the numerous attempts to explain her ailments -- allergies, overheating, dehydration, pneumonia -- over the course of not so many days makes me wonder if they’ll be any more explanations, and whether this is the last Clinton health episode we’ll see before Election Day. 

  • Will Rahn

    Will Rahn is a political correspondent and managing director, politics, for CBS News Digital.