If the emerging corporate media narrative is to be believed, Sen. Bernie Sanders's minor heart attack last week dealt a devastating, and possibly insurmountable, blow to the Vermont senator's bid for the White House.
"I actually feel like Bernie's hospitalization is a sign that we have to do more to get him elected. He is the most effective possible weapon we have against Trump, and his presidency would be an opportunity for an unprecedented transformation of the political system."
—Nathan J. Robinson, Current AffairsBut prominent campaign surrogates, advisers, and supporters in recent days have forcefully pushed back against that notion and argued Sanders—with his grassroots army as enthusiastic and motivated as ever—is well-positioned to compete for and ultimately win the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination.
In a video statement released on Thursday, Sanders himself spoke to supporters and the American public directly about his recent heart attack and said that he's "feeling really good and getting stronger every day."
At the end of the day, we have one life to live, and you ask yourself, what role do I want to play?
That role must go deeper than defeating Trump.
We must create a country where people are working to take care of each other. pic.twitter.com/g327uGrRow
— Bernie Sanders (@BernieSanders) October 10, 2019
Thanking supporters for their well-wishes, Sanders said his recovery and rest time has allowed him to reflect on the kinds of adversity that tens of millions of Americans face each and every day.
"But at the end of the day, if you're going to look at yourself in the mirror and you're going to say, 'Look, I go around once. I have one life to live, what role do I want to play?'" Sanders says in the video. "It speaks to the need to create the kind of country that we can become, where people are working hard to serve each other—to understand each other. That is the country we can become—we really can. But we have to have the courage to take on some enormously powerful special interests."
James Zogby, a committed Sanders backer and president of the Arab American Institute, said that when the senator returns to the campaign trail after fully recovering from his heart stent procedure, he will be greeted by "an invigorated campaign with a staff and a support base that has doubled down in their efforts to make this happen."
"We are going to have an active campaign. 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."
—Faiz Shakir, Sanders campaign manager
"Because they realize that for them—and for me—he's the critical choice," Zogby told HuffPost.
Speaking to reporters outside of his Vermont home Tuesday, Sanders said he plans to make adjustments to his schedule—which, before his health scare, frequently included three or four rallies per day on top of other campaign activity—to ensure he can sustain his presidential bid over the long haul.
"We're gonna probably not do three or four rallies a day," Sanders said, adding that he will likely attend two rallies a day.
Pundits and major media outlets quickly seized upon the senator's remarks as evidence that he is dramatically dialing back his campaign activity or even, in the words of FiveThirtyEight's Nate Silver, "entering a phase where his goal is to pull the nominee to the left and/or to build a movement rather than to actually win."
The campaign, and Sanders himself, quickly and aggressively disputed both claims.
"As Bernie said, we are going to have an active campaign," Faiz Shakir, Sanders's campaign manager, told Common Dreams. "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."
In an interview with NBC News Wednesday, Sanders said he plans to "start off slower" once he hits the trail again "and build up and build up and build up."
"We're going to get back into the groove of a very vigorous campaign," Sanders said. "I love doing rallies and I love doing town meetings."
The senator also dismissed the notion that his campaign was not sufficiently transparent about his health, a line some political reporters pushed after the campaign announced last Friday that Sanders had a heart attack.
"That's nonsense. I don't know what people think campaigns are, you know we're dealing with all kinds of doctors and we wanted to have a sense of what the hell was going on really," Sanders told NBC. "So the first thing that we're trying to do is understand what's going on and not run to the New York Times and have to report every 15 minutes. You know, this is not a baseball game. So I think we acted absolutely appropriately."
Bernie Sanders said it's "nonsense" that his campaign hid the details of his heart attack.
"We acted absolutely appropriately."
— NBC Nightly News with Lester Holt (@NBCNightlyNews) October 9, 2019
David Welch, a recently retired cardio rehab nurse in California who supports Sanders for president but has no affiliation with the campaign, wrote in a Common Dreams op-ed Thursday that the senator's heart attack is not a concern for him.
Based on his 36 years as a health professional working with cardiac patients, Welch said that given what is known about Sanders' heart attack and the stent procedure which followed, there's no reason to be worried about his ability to return to full health and the campaign.
"Remember, those arteries had been narrowed for a long time," writes Welch. "Even with narrowed arteries the senator has been keeping up a pace that most younger people couldn't hope to match. Now, they are wide open and he's probably had no significant heart damage... Honestly, the people who should be most worried right now are the campaign staff who will have to keep up with him now that the arteries are fully open."
In an op-ed for CNN Wednesday, Adam Kassam and Ben Eschenheimer wrote that "of course" Sanders could still serve as president following his heart attack.
"The suggestion that Sanders should stand down and endorse another candidate because of a health condition that many Americans live and work with is not only callous, but carries a bitter flavor of discrimination," wrote Kassam and Eschenheimer. "Indeed it scans as ableism, a shameful undercurrent that has pervaded discussions of the 2020 election, along with ageism."
While Sanders has been off the trail for several days to rest after his procedure, his grassroots campaign operation does not appear to have lost any momentum. Last week, just hours after news of Sanders' heart stent procedure, the campaign worked the senator's health scare into the case for Medicare for All.
"As you see the headlines about Bernie today, send him your good vibes—and remember how important the fight for Medicare for All really is," said Sanders speechwriter David Sirota.
"It was like a rallying cry. It was incredible. That's the difference between having a movement as opposed to just a campaign."
On Tuesday, the campaign announced that volunteers made 1.3 million calls in Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, South Carolina, California, Colorado, and Oklahoma, easily hitting their goal of a million calls over a 10-day period.
As HuffPost's Daniel Marans reported, the campaign surpassed its goal after experiencing "a spike in volunteers" in the wake of news last Wednesday that Sanders had been hospitalized after experiencing chest discomfort on the trail in Nevada.
The campaign said the senator also received 8,000 donations on Wednesday, just a week after team Sanders announced it raised $25.3 million from an average donation of $18 in the third quarter of 2019—the largest haul in the Democratic field, fueled by contributions from teachers and employees of Starbucks, Amazon, and Walmart.
"It was like a rallying cry. It was incredible," RoseAnn DeMoro, former executive director of National Nurses United and prominent Sanders backer, told HuffPost of the flood of support for Sanders following his procedure. "That's the difference between having a movement as opposed to just a campaign."
Speaking to the Associated Press, DeMoro stressed that Sanders's heart attack was "minor" and that the "stents will be extremely helpful in terms of blood flow."
"I assume he'll be far more vigorous," DeMoro said. "Heaven help the opposition."
You all stepped up even more. It was amazing to be a part of.
A Movement Moment on steroids!
Now Bernie is baaaack!!! Posers beware!
I did not hear one person express interest in any one else!
— RoseAnn DeMoro (@RoseAnnDeMoro) October 9, 2019
For Nathan Robinson, editor of Current Affairs magazine and unabashed Sanders supporter, the senator's health scare brought into sharp relief the urgency of nominating Sanders to take on President Donald Trump in the 2020 general election.
In an article titled "Why Bernie Has to Win," published just days after Sanders's hospitalization, Robinson echoed a prescient argument he made in the midst of the 2016 Democratic primary: Sanders represents the best chance to both defeat Trump and enact a transformational progressive agenda.
"I actually feel like Bernie's hospitalization is a sign that we have to do more to get him elected," Robinson wrote. "He is the most effective possible weapon we have against Trump, and his presidency would be an opportunity for an unprecedented transformation of the political system."
To be honest, Bernie shouldn't have to be exerting himself in the way he has been. Because this campaign isn't about him. In fact, if Bernie is elected, he shouldn't have to be doing the bulk of the work. He is a vehicle for the creation of a people's presidency. We are not nominating him because he is a messianic leader who will solve our problems and personally guide us to the promised land. We are nominating him because his is the name we put on the ballot in order to achieve power. This campaign isn't about Bernie Sanders, it's about getting the Bernie Sanders agenda passed: Medicare for All, a Green New Deal, free college, workplace democracy.
"We have one last shot," Robinson concluded. "Are we going to sit and Raise Questions from the stands or are we going to commit ourselves to making sure that this time, we do not let Donald Trump win the presidential election? Bernie will fight until his very last breath to make this a humane country that cares for its people... That's what he will do. So what will you and I do to help?"