John Fetterman was sworn into the U.S. Senate 90 days ago Monday, though you’d be forgiven for missing the anniversary: He spent more than half that time in the hospital.
The initial outpouring of support when Fetterman checked himself in (for the second time) was massive. The Washington Post said “we need more brave politicians” just like him. “The View’s” Sunny Hostin predicted his opponents would try to use this against him, but the decision was “brave and courageous.”
The following Tuesday, Politico’s Playbook newsletter reported that Sen. Katie Boyd Britt had sent Fetterman a cookie cake, Sen. Bernie Sanders had sent a fruit basket, and Sen. Tina Smith had “dropped off doughnuts for Fetterman’s staff.”
The next day, Playbook included a Philadelphia Inquirer interview with Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro, who said he hadn’t heard any senior state party members ask for Fetterman to be replaced, but if he did he would “dismiss it immediately.”
For weeks after that: silence. A staff birthday was reported here, a stalled bill there; a Politico piece at the end of February explained how the Democrats’ 50-49 majority meant the vice president could sub in for Fetterman, and with a “quieter Senate … and with no big thorny legislation on the horizon, his party is giving him ample patience.”
The senator “is well on his way to recovery … and will be back soon,” his chief of staff tweeted on March 6, nearly three weeks after he was admitted.
“John will be out soon,” his communications director said — a full four weeks after that.
But with Sen. Dianne Feinstein also out for the entirety of March with shingles, even Vice President Kamala Harris couldn’t break the tie, and the president’s agenda is suffering for it. After The Washington Examiner (and then Politico) pointed this out last week, “two people with direct knowledge of his plan” said, “Fetterman plans to return to the Senate the week of April 17.”
Two days later, he was discharged with doctors reporting improvement in his sleep, diet, “motivation, self-attitude and engagement.” A “CBS Morning” interview broadcast to coincide with his release was emotional: The senator was clearly happy to have felt improvements, welled up at the pain of entering the hospital on his kid’s 14th birthday, and looked forward to being able to simply take his son to the dinner they had planned.
Fetterman’s progress is wonderful news, but what’s the endgame? While he can reportedly summon the energy to get out of bed and re-engage with his family, can he do that while expending the energy needed for his demanding job? During the CBS interview, he agreed his life as a senator had been “robotic.” “I just showed up,” he shared, “where my staff said.”
This admission didn’t seem to faze “CBS Morning” host Jane Pauley, who closed out the stinted and emotional interview by asking Fetterman if he planned to run for president. A better question for a man who’s spent half his term so far in the hospital — and who still needs to figure out if he can focus on his mental health, physical health, family, and job all at once — might have been if he intends to stay in office at all. The whisper in D.C. is he can resign, but not before Aug. 9.
Aug. 9 is not a particularly auspicious day in world history, though it’s had its moments. Julius Caesar, for example, defeated his great rival Pompey on this day 2,071 years ago. It also marks the ascension of Jerry Ford to the presidency and the death of Jerry Garcia 21 years later. On this day in history, Henry David Thoreau published his book about living in the woods, and the ill-fated foundations were begun for a bell tower in the Italian city of Pisa.
This year, Aug. 9 will also mark the date when the citizens of Pennsylvania will be 90 days out from their Nov. 7 election, meaning the next morning, Fetterman can resign from office without incurring a Republican challenger this fall.
Special elections to fill a vacant Senate seat, the law states, must “be held at the time of the next general or municipal election, occurring at least ninety (90) days after the happening of such vacancy.” The law is designed so that opposing candidates have a chance to campaign, but if Fetterman resigns on Aug. 10, it means the election to replace him won’t be held until November 2024. That’s crucial to Democrats for a number of reasons.
First: It’s not a good time for Democrats to run another campaign. Pennsylvania leaders don’t really want to talk about what’s happening to Fetterman (notice the silence?) and are even less comfortable answering questions on who knew what and when. Those sorts of campaign-trail queries are best left to next year, when they can be dismissed as partisan attacks on old news about a tragic figure, as opposed to pertinent and current questions about an inhumane political machine and its lies about Fetterman’s true physical and emotional well-being.
The second reason also relates to time: Delaying the election until November 2024 gives Conor Lamb (or whichever Democrat the governor selects) more than a year to establish himself in Fetterman’s seat before having to face a challenger.
Finally: turnout. Democrats are confident they’ll get higher engagement from their voters during a presidential year — and further, think a Republican such as former President Donald Trump or Gov. Ron DeSantis will help their guy hold onto the seat.
Sure, it’s hard on the junior senator from Pennsylvania, who currently passes his days speaking to his chief of staff in a purple room with crayon drawings on the walls. But all in all, the conclusion is simple: Holding on for a little more than four months will mean Pennsylvania Democrats can run an “incumbent” while dodging questions on their cover-ups during a year they think will better favor their man. That Fetterman is emotionally (and likely mentally) unable to perform his duties barely figures in. That he’s apparently suffering from severe depression is an afterthought. “Stop blaming” his wife, one Inquirer columnist demanded.
It’s a wild play and seems hard to believe until you remember these are the same political partisans who pushed Fetterman over the finish line in the first place, despite clear-as-day signs he was not up to the job and — even worse — would suffer physically and emotionally if pushed too hard.
The whole time, prominent members of the press covered for the fraud. When NBC reporter Dasha Burns scored the first on-camera interview with Fetterman since his stroke five months earlier, she noted that “in small talk before the interview without captioning, it wasn’t clear he was understanding our conversation.” The reaction was swift and brutal.
“The View’s” Hostin demanded to know if Burns was a “neurosurgeon, or a neurologist,” implying only someone with 14-16 years of medical training was qualified to interview Fetterman. Co-host Whoopi Goldberg piled on, suggesting the professional interviewer was the one who was bad at small talk.
“As someone who has recently interviewed him: Fetterman’s comprehension is not at all impaired,” New York Magazine reporter Rebecca Traister insisted.
“Maybe this reporter is just bad at small talk,” wrote Kara Swisher, a totally serious 60-year-old Vox reporter who also describes herself as the “liberal lesbian Donald Trump of San Francisco.” “Sorry to say but I talked to John Fetterman for over an hour without stop or any aides and this is just nonsense.”
“Journalist Kara Swisher,” The Telegraph reported, “shuts down ‘nonsense’ claims that John Fetterman couldn’t follow conversation.”
Far from taking Burns’ side, her colleague Savannah Guthrie joined in, pointing out that “other journalists who have also dealt with Fetterman came forward and said they had a different experience.”
One of the only left-wing outlets to defend Burns’ reporting was The Atlantic; NBC itself was silent.
Still today — 90 days into his term and absent for the majority of it — little has changed. That’s not shocking: Reporters haven’t been asking questions because by and large, they’re complicit, just as so many of them were during the election.
There’s a cost to this sort of vicious hunger for power, though, and not just for Fetterman, whose recovery is stinted and who’s spent the majority of the year withdrawn and depressed. The voters were conned and were then deprived of a U.S. senator for nearly two months. They had better buckle up; while we’ve moved a little down the track, this ride isn’t letting passengers off anytime soon.