Sanders recovering after heart surgery. Will his campaign?

The fact that 78-year-old presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders had emergency heart surgery after a campaign event Tuesday leaves his campaign with two uncertain prognoses: one medical, the other political.

The medical one is far simpler.

The procedure Sanders had — the insertion of mesh tubes, or stents, to prop open a full or partially blocked artery and allow easier blood flow — is “not a big deal, mechanically speaking,” said Valentin Fuster, director of the Mount Sinai Heart Center in Manhattan, adding that “in general patients do very well.”

The questions of why the blockage occurred in the first place and what future risks Sanders might face are more complicated, Fuster said. “Is there high blood pressure, or diabetes, or high cholesterol? There are many issues that must be looked at before coming to any conclusion.”

Sanders had the procedure after experiencing chest pain while campaigning in Nevada late Tuesday afternoon, and was reported to be recovering in an unnamed hospital.

“Sen. Sanders experienced some chest discomfort,” campaign manager Jeff Weaver said in a short statement. “Following medical evaluation and testing he was found to have a blockage in one artery and two stents were successfully inserted. Sen. Sanders is conversing and in good spirits. He will be resting up over the next few days. We are canceling his events and appearances until further notice, and we will continue to provide appropriate updates.”

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., pauses while speaking at a campaign event, Sunday, Sept. 29, 2019, at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H. (Photo: Cheryl Senter/AP)
Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders at a campaign event. (Photo: Cheryl Senter/AP)

As to the political questions, those are beyond the realm of a cardiologist.

Sanders is one of three Democratic hopefuls who are 70 or older, and age has been both a direct and oblique issue during the campaign. Sometimes it takes the form of a debate of the old ways versus the new ones, and 76-year-old Joe Biden in particular has been portrayed by opponents as belonging to a bygone time.

But physical health has also been raised as a concern, as these candidates battle for a job that has been known to age much younger men. Last month, Biden, Sanders and 70-year-old Elizabeth Warren all pledged to release full medical reports before the Iowa caucuses.

So if Sanders — sometimes called the Energizer Bunny because his energy rarely seems to flag — is physically well enough to get back on the campaign trail, will he be politically healthy enough?

His medical troubles come at a time when his poll numbers have been slipping, notably against Warren, but just a day after his campaign reported the best quarterly fundraising total of any Democrat this cycle: more than $25 million.

For the moment, the speculation about the political effects of Sanders’s heart procedure seems limited to celebratory tweets from longtime Trump supporters and “too soon to tell” messages from a few journalists.

Campaign speechwriter David Sirota aimed to spin the news to talk about health care, tweeting, “I’d encourage media reporting on stents to point out that stents are an example of why we need to join the rest of the industrialized world and pass @BernieSanders’ Medicare for All plan,” with an attached article about how much more expensive stents are in the U.S. than in other countries.

Direct attacks on age are frowned upon in modern campaigns, as evidenced by the side-door allusions to Biden’s age so far in this one. During the second presidential debate, for instance, Julián Castro was widely criticized for seeming to bait Biden, asking repeatedly if he had “already forgotten what you just said.”

But the Sanders campaign will still have to deal with the aftermath. Candidates and their advisers appear to have decided that this is not the day to question the senior senator’s health. That day will likely come, however, and soon.

Until then, the rather bland good wishes have been pouring in. “I hope to see my friend back on the campaign trail very soon,” Warren tweeted. Biden said: “We are confident he will have a full and speedy recovery and look forward to seeing him on the trail soon.”

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