September disaster for Clinton campaign

Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonDershowitz: 'Too many politicians are being subject to criminal prosecution' The 13 Republicans needed to pass gun-control legislation Democrats spar over electoral appeal of 'Medicare for All' MORE’s health problems — and, in particular, the shocking video of her being helped into a van on Sunday — are the worst developments yet for a campaign that has hit a serious rough patch. 

Before the health drama, polls were already tightening, and the Democratic presidential nominee had delivered a semi-apology for asserting that half of Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpHarris bashes Kavanaugh's 'sham' nomination process, calls for his impeachment after sexual misconduct allegation Celebrating 'Hispanic Heritage Month' in the Age of Trump Let's not play Charlie Brown to Iran's Lucy MORE’s supporters came from a “basket of deplorables.”

Democrats aren’t in full-on panic mode just yet, but they are worried that a race that had looked comfortable only a few weeks ago is now seriously competitive. And they expect to be on edge for much of the next week, until the first polls appear indicating how Clinton’s battle with pneumonia is affecting the contest.

The incident seems sure to further antagonize the media as well, because Clinton aides had derided reporters who raised her health as an issue, and the campaign was less than transparent about Sunday’s events.

The video of Clinton in a state of near-collapse on Sunday was “terrible,” Democratic strategist Hank Sheinkopf acknowledged. 

“The idea of her appearing to be out of physical control reinforces Trump’s argument about her capacity and it reinforces the question of whether she is hiding something,” Sheinkopf added.

Tobe Berkovitz, a Boston University professor who specializes in political communications, said that on a 1 to 10 scale, with 10 being the most damaging, the video footage rated “a 15.”

Berkovitz added: “No matter what you say and no matter how you say it, everyone sees the presidential nominee basically collapsing, almost on the street. When you are saying, ‘I want to be commander in chief and I have the toughness and the strength to lead America during trying times,’ well, you don’t want to see that person being carried into a van.”

One silver lining to the health cloud may be the extent to which it has sidelined the controversy over the “basket of deplorables” comment. 

Some Democrats continue to defend that remark. Strategist Jamal Simmons said it was “absolutely appropriate” and could also help motivate Clinton supporters who see her “ready and willing to call out the bigotry emanating from the Trump camp.”

But others, including Sheinkopf, suggested that the comment was equally likely to energize Trump supporters who felt Clinton was “disdaining” them.

On Monday, the health story dominated the headlines, and the Clinton campaign was still grappling with questions. 

During an interview with MSNBC’s Kate Snow, campaign manager Robby Mook avoided giving a direct answer about whether he or others on the staff knew that Clinton had been diagnosed with pneumonia on Friday.

But when CNN’s Wolf Blitzer asked Clinton press secretary Brian Fallon earlier in the day whether he personally knew Clinton had the illness, Fallon replied, “The senior staff was aware on Friday, and then word spread in the campaign after that.”

On Sunday, as Clinton recovered in the Manhattan apartment of her daughter, Chelsea, the reporters who normally travel with the nominee were left largely in the dark as to what was going on. 

The political danger in such moments may not be so pronounced if the candidate in question had a less fractious relationship with the press or was trusted by a larger portion of the population. 

The Clinton campaign had pushed back vigorously at reporters who focused on her health in the past. When NBC News ran a short story about Clinton having a coughing fit on its website last week, Clinton’s traveling press secretary, Nick Merrill, tweeted, “Get a life,” at the reporter in question, Andrew Rafferty.

Recent polls suggest Clinton is considered honest by only about 1 in 3 voters.

Clinton isn’t the first major political figure to suffer a health mishap in public. President Jimmy Carter was photographed in a state of near-collapse on a run, for example, and President George H.W. Bush became ill and vomited in 1992 while sitting beside the Japanese prime minister at a state dinner in Tokyo.

Marlin Fitzwater, who was Bush’s White House press secretary at the time, told The Hill that the Bush team tried to contain the damage by being as open as possible, holding a news conference soon afterward and allowing the media to speak with Bush the following day.

In contrast, Fitzwater noted, Clinton had only appeared very briefly outside Chelsea Clinton’s apartment as she walked to a waiting vehicle. 

“She still hasn’t talked to the press about it. If she really is up and about, I don’t know why she doesn’t walk outside and talk to the press corps,” Fitzwater said. “All she has got to do is walk out the door and approach them.”

The Clinton campaign has promised to release more detailed health records later this week. Clinton tweeted late Monday afternoon that she is “feeling fine and getting better.”

Trump, Clinton’s GOP opponent, has also been criticized for opaqueness about his health. He has released only a brief letter from a physician, which drew some mockery for asserting that, if he won the election, he would be the healthiest president ever. 

Trump has been relatively restrained so far in commenting on Sunday’s events, though he had repeatedly suggested on previous occasions that the former secretary of State lacked the “stamina” to succeed as president.

Those remarks had been seen by critics as an attempt to stoke unsupported speculation about Clinton’s health that proliferates among conservatives, especially online. There is no evidence that Clinton has any more serious health issue than pneumonia, but her near-collapse complicates the political calculus.

“What makes this event so damaging is how it plays into every narrative,” said Berkovitz. “It plays into Donald Trump — and Matt Drudge — harping on Hillary’s health, and it plays into the voters’ perception that Hillary is not trustworthy. You have a mess on your hands.”