Standing outside his home in Burlington, Vt., days after suffering a heart attack, Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersSunday shows preview: Coronavirus dominates as country struggles with delta variant Democrats urge Biden to commute sentences of 4K people on home confinement Briahna Joy Gray: Push toward major social spending amid pandemic was 'short-lived' MORE (I-Vt.) made a confession.
“I must confess, I was dumb,” Sanders, 78, told reporters. “During this campaign, I've been doing, in some cases three or four rallies a day, running all over the state — Iowa, New Hampshire, wherever. And yet I, in the last month or two, just was more fatigued than I usually have been.”
If Sanders’s concession was a moment of vulnerability for a candidate who has long portrayed himself as a tireless political warrior, it was also a deeply personal one — the kind of moment Sanders’s aides and allies believe will help him connect with voters at a time of uncertainty for his candidacy.
“He’s not always eager to discuss his personal life. He intentionally kind of avoids the conversations that make it about himself,” Faiz Shakir, Sanders’s campaign manager, said. “But we see it as an advantage to talk about it in those terms — those very human and personal terms.”
In recent days, the progressive firebrand, who rarely strays from his core message of political revolution, has talked openly about feeling fatigued on the campaign trail; he has admitted to mishandling his health leading up to the heart attack; and he has used the experience to pitch his signature policy proposal, "Medicare for All."
By addressing the matter head on, Sanders’s campaign is hoping to fend off concerns about his health, Shakir said. Aides are cognizant of the political toll that the heart attack could take, and are pursuing a “lean-in” strategy that they hope will mitigate doubts in his ability to campaign.
“In my view, there’s no avoiding that conversation,” Shakir said. “You either talk about it now or you talk about it later. If you’re going to have that conversation, I think we all agree, let’s just be open and transparent.”
Sanders’s decision to talk more about his personal experiences in the wake of his heart attack comes at a trying time for him, both politically and personally.
Many recent polls show him losing ground to Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenFederal Reserve officials' stock trading sparks ethics review Manchin keeps Washington guessing on what he wants Warren, Daines introduce bill honoring 13 killed in Kabul attack MORE (D-Mass.), a fellow septuagenarian and his chief ideological rival. At the same time, his daughter-in-law Rainè Riggs passed away late last week shortly after she was diagnosed with cancer.
Sanders underwent a stent procedure last week to treat a blocked artery after he experienced what one of his senior advisers initially described as “chest discomfort” during a campaign event in Las Vegas. Days later, after Sanders was discharged from the hospital, his campaign revealed that he had suffered a heart attack.
Some of Sanders’s allies believe that his experience in the hospital helps him bolster his argument for a Medicare for All health care system, a proposal he has touted for years but one that he has cast as more personal in the wake of his heart attack.
“I think it is more powerful, precisely for the reason that he will now speak from direct experience,” said Jim Zogby, a Democratic National Committee member who has endorsed Sanders’s presidential bid. “That’s the pivot that we’re seeing occur.”
But the political risks the heart attack carries are, to an extent, unavoidable. Polls show that most Democrats are leery about nominating a presidential candidate in their 70s, and Sanders’ recent health event could raise questions about his age and ability to run against President TrumpDonald TrumpKinzinger says Trump 'winning' because so many Republicans 'have remained silent' Our remote warfare counterterrorism strategy is more risk than reward Far-right rally draws small crowd, large police presence at Capitol MORE in the general election, let alone serve in the White House should he win.
Adding to the potential challenges facing his campaign was his announcement this week that he would slow down his pace on the campaign trail, a remarkable concession given the critical nature of the coming months in the Democratic nominating contest. Candidates typically ramp up their operations in the fall in preparation for the marathon of early primaries and caucuses in Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina.
“There’s the dimension of his age and his health and his capacity to serve. But then there’s the secondary dimension; the campaign is about to hit warp speed,” one Democratic strategist said. “We’re four months from Iowa and the campaign is only going to increase in velocity.”
Others cast doubt on the notion that the slower pace of campaigning would have a tangible effect on Sanders’s prospects.
Joe Trippi, a veteran Democratic operative who managed former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean’s 2004 presidential campaign, said that the candidates would likely narrow their focus to a handful of early states in the coming weeks and months, giving some hopefuls a temporary reprieve from the stresses of national campaigning.
“This is the time when your time becomes more concentrated and you’re not flying around place to place, rally to rally,” Trippi said. “We are moving into the phase where you’re going to see a lot more candidates literally squatting in one or two states.”
“I don’t see it being a big problem,” he added, referring to Sanders’s decision to lighten his campaign schedule.
Shakir said that, for now, the campaign is focused on getting Sanders back on the trail while also giving him time to recover. The Vermont senator is still slated to appear at a Democratic presidential debate on Tuesday in Ohio.
“His instinct is to turn into a sprinter and do five events a day,” Shakir said. “And I understand that desire, but it’s incumbent on us as a campaign that we keep a marathoner’s pace here.”