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The Fetterman Dilemma

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of Townhall.com.
AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar

John Fetterman was sworn in as senator from Pennsylvania on Jan. 3. On Feb. 8, after 36 days in office, Fetterman was admitted to George Washington University Hospital in Washington after experiencing symptoms he and those around him feared might indicate a stroke. Tests showed he did not have a stroke, and Fetterman was released after two nights in the hospital. On Feb. 15, after 43 days in office, Fetterman checked himself into Walter Reed National Military Medical Center for treatment of depression. He is still there. Over the weekend, the Wall Street Journal reported that Fetterman "could remain hospitalized for more than a month."


Fetterman's problems, of course, are after-effects of a stroke he suffered on May 13, 2022, just days before Pennsylvania's Democratic senatorial primary. Fetterman stayed in the race, won his party's nomination and moved on to the general election campaign. At the time, Fetterman, his family, and his political team downplayed the seriousness of his condition. Fetterman's wife, Gisele, called the stroke "a little hiccup" and told reporters that her husband would be "back on his feet in no time." In contemporary accounts, the event was often called a "minor stroke." Now, however, it is widely recognized to have been life threatening.

Worse, there are fears that Fetterman, by focusing on his campaign rather than his recovery, permanently damaged his health. This is from the New York Times: "After the life-changing stroke, days before the Democratic primary last year, Mr. Fetterman briefly pared down his schedule to recover. But he continued to campaign in one of the most competitive and closely watched Senate races in the nation. Now, the possibility that he may have missed out on a crucial recovery period has become a source of pain and frustration for Mr. Fetterman and people close to him, who fear he may suffer long-term and potentially permanent repercussions. His schedule as a freshman senator has meant that he has continued to push himself in ways that people close to him worry are detrimental."

All in all, it has not begun well. It seems obvious now that Fetterman was in no condition to begin a six-year term as a United States senator. Of course, that was obvious, at least to some people, before the election, too. But in 2022, one man's health was so caught up in politics that reasonable concerns were overwhelmed by the partisan fray. The result is a new senator, in the hospital, facing an uncertain future.


Obviously, Pennsylvania Democrats wanted to defeat the Republican Senate candidate, Dr. Mehmet Oz, particularly because Oz had been endorsed by former President Donald Trump. But Fetterman was not the only Democrat who could have run against Oz. Democratic then-Rep. Conor Lamb was in the primary race and lost by double digits to Fetterman. Lamb's loss was attributed in part to the fact that he was too moderate for the progressives who have taken over Democratic politics; one Pennsylvania Democrat told the New York Times, of Lamb, that "I look at him as another Joe Manchin," referring to the famously "centrist" Democratic senator from West Virginia.

In retrospect, though, it appears that Lamb could have won the seat, just as Fetterman did, because Democrats and their allies in the media were successful in turning much of the race into a referendum on Oz -- and, by extension, on Trump. After all, Fetterman won after a debate in which it was clear to all that he had not fully recovered. Voters watched it and still voted for Fetterman. There were so many voters in Pennsylvania who were determined that Oz and Trump could never, ever, ever prevail that Fetterman was likely not the only Democrat who could have taken the seat.

But Fetterman himself appeared to want it. It's necessary to say "appeared" because we never know what is in another person's heart of hearts. In any event, Fetterman and his party blew past the warning signs and went ahead with the campaign. And now, in office, he has hit a wall.


It's important to remember that it is possible to wish Fetterman the best, to wish him a complete recovery and a good life, and still believe it was a mistake for him to run for Senate and that Pennsylvania would be better served today by another senator. But the situation is what it is, the result of one man, and perhaps his family, and certainly his political party wanting something more than was wise, given the circumstances.


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