Karl Rove stunned a conference when he suggested Hillary Clinton may have brain damage

A spokesperson for Clinton added, “Karl Rove has deceived the country for years, but there are no words for this level of lying.”

As for her health, “She is 100 percent. Period.”

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I notice how overstated the reaction is — “no words for this level of lying”? What part is the lie? Was Rove wrong about the number of days in the hospital? (I think he was.) Clearly, she came out wearing some special glasses. Was Rove wrong in his characterization of the glasses? (Maybe not.) Certainly, it’s fair to state that the public (and the prospective donors) need accurate facts about a presidential candidate’s health. That is always demanded, and we’ve been misled by candidates in the past. (I’m thinking of Paul Tsongas.)

The overreaction makes me suspicious that there really is a problem. I don’t like this how-dare-you-even-ask attitude. It makes me skeptical. But I do understand the alternative explanation: Stir up the base with stimulating outrage and a reminder that one ought to hate Karl Rove.

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Hillary Clinton spokesman Nick Merrill took fresh aim at Karl Rove on Tuesday after the GOP strategist doubled down on his earlier questions about Clinton’s health — saying Rove is cynically trying to “inject the issue into the echo chamber.”…

“From the moment this happened 17 months ago, the Right has politicized her health,” the Clinton spokesman said in an email to POLITICO. “First, they accused her of faking it, now they’ve resorted to the other extreme – and are flat out lying. Even this morning, Karl Rove is still all over the map and is continuing to get the facts wrong. But he doesn’t care, because all he wants to do is inject the issue into the echo chamber, and he’s succeeding.”

Merrill added: “It’s flagrant and thinly veiled. They are scared of what she has achieved and what she has to offer. What he’s doing is its own form of sickness. But she is 100%, period. Time for them to move on to their next desperate attack.”

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“There’s no reason for me to suspect that Secretary Clinton has a health problem that would disqualify her. She seems to be very engaged and very capable,” [Lindsey] Graham told reporters. “I think that people at 69 are incredibly able to serve, ‘cause I’ll be there in 10 years.”

Graham said Clinton will go through a vetting process similar to the “drill” that Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) underwent during his 2008 presidential run, and said that Clinton will have to prove that “whatever medical condition she had, bumped her head, that that’s OK.”…

“I’m not a doctor, as far as I can tell based on the way she engages she’s very alert and very feisty and keeps a busy schedule so I have no reason to believe that there’s anything in her background that will disqualify her,” Graham said.

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Hillary Clinton has been accused of being involved in a murder plot, lying to a grand jury, and orchestrating her daughter’s pregnancy for political gain, so being accused of concealing a brain trauma is probably not shocking. Going after the front-runner early is also now a best practice. The Obama team brags about how attacking Mitt Romney long before he was the official nominee was a key to its success. Raising issues about health and age is also standard operating procedure in campaigns; in modern history, it has been a chiefly Democratic technique, used against Ronald Reagan, Bob Dole, and John McCain. Dick Cheney also enjoyed speculation about whether his heart condition had made him go nuts.

Clinton’s health has come up in lots of conversations I’ve had with Republican political strategists and even some potential presidential candidates, but the topic dribbles away because Clinton’s doctors cleared her of neurological damage and said she didn’t have a stroke. It is a legitimate issue, but it’s awfully early. Rove knows better than most that the press will raise the question once the campaign begins in earnest. Now that the age issue is out in the open, though, perhaps some conspiracies can flower. The questions about her health might grow so baroque that they blossom into the spectacular nuttiness of the Obama birth certificate claims. Or, these daily questions about Clinton could achieve a collective weight on her candidacy. So many issues, so much drama, it’s always something with her.

On the other hand, Rove’s counterdiagnosis to the official one could also make it look like the GOP is totally unhinged about Hillary Clinton, so fevered in its desire to drag her down that it will engage in medical speculation. (In addition to Clinton staying in the hospital for only four days and not 30, Rove appears to have been wrong about the glasses. Clinton’s glasses appear to have been her normal ones.) Baseless allegations could create sympathy for Clinton, rally her supporters, and put each incremental GOP claim, regardless of its merits, into the category of wolf crying.

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“So, Karl Rove there, basically calling for Hillary’s health records,” MSNBC host Krystal Ball opined on Tuesday. “Is that going to be the 2016 equivalent of calling for Obama’s birth certificate?”

Huffington Post editorial director Howard Fineman agreed and noted that Clinton’s health records could be one of a handful of “personal details that she’s not going to want to talk about.”

“The whole Republican strategy is to make this all so distasteful to Hillary that she’s going to look at it and say, ‘I don’t want to run, it’s too dirty, it’s too nasty.’” Fineman conjectured. “I think that’s vaguely sexist because I don’t think you would say that about any man that you are going to scare him out of the race because he is not tough enough.”

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When Dick Cheney, at age 54, was Bush’s running mate, he had suffered three heart attacks—including on the year of the election — and had open heart surgery and a pacemaker installed. President Obama has written that, in his youth, he used marijuana and “maybe a little blow.” Mitt Romney had 16 grandchildren when he ran for President in 2012 and two more were born during the campaign. Ronald Reagan was 69 when he was inaugurated President.

These were all by-and-large non-issues when these men ran for office—certainly fodder for the opposition, but barely taken seriously and certainly not used to wage larger critiques on these candidates’ character and qualifications. These were people who, whatever one thought of them, were obviously qualified for the offices they sought. A few behavioral or circumstantial dings weren’t going to change that fact.

Not so for the (maybe, possible) woman candidate who not only suffers the same slings and arrows aimed at her character but is constantly deflecting those attacks from impugning her fundamental ability to lead. If she chooses to run, Hillary Clinton faces a built-in uphill battle in a society that wonders if a woman is inherently equipped to be president—sentiments given voice and legs by conservative commentators…

Which brings me back to Mr. Rove. In December 2012, Hillary Clinton spent four days in the hospital—not 30. Mr. Rove should very simply and immediately apologize for this error and set the record straight. Moreover, experts made clear that the glasses Clinton wore after the accident were meant to treat double vision as a result of the accident and were not indicative of brain damage. Unless Mr. Rove has suddenly added ophthalmology to his resume of manipulating voters and freaking out on election night, he might want to apologize for this mistake as well.

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I now welcome the requisite venomous outrage from lefties who can’t believe I’m daring to question the physical and mental health of a woman who will be 69 years old on January 20, 2017. You can all pretend you never questioned John McCain’s health back in 2008, when he was 72.

That was different, though, because shut up.

Whatever the case may be, here’s wishing Hillary Clinton the best of health. And if she decides to start being transparent about it, even better.

Just remember: Asking questions of American royalty is racist. I mean sexist.

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Why does Rove allegedly smear his opponents this way? Because it works. Consider the Clinton “brain damage” story. Right now, the press is slamming Rove for his vicious, outlandish comments. But they’re also talking about Clinton’s health problems as secretary of state, disrupting the story she wants to tell about her time in Foggy Bottom in her forthcoming memoir.

Assuming she runs for president, the press will investigate Clinton’s medical history and age no matter what Rove says. But he’s now planted questions—about the December 2012 blood clot that forced her into the hospital, and about her mental condition as she ages—that will lurk in journalists’ minds as they do that reporting. If she has a moment of Rick Perry-like forgetfulness sometime between now and the fall of 2016, Rove’s comments make it more likely that voters will wonder whether she’s still with it mentally.

Political consultants create narratives about the candidates they want to defeat: Al Gore fudged the truth; John Kerry was an elitist; Barack Obama wasn’t fully American; Mitt Romney didn’t care about ordinary people. Once you kindle public suspicion about your opponent, it’s easy to keep throwing logs on the fire. On the eve of the memoir that will launch Hillary’s pre-campaign public relations blitz, Karl Rove is starting that process now, despite having no evidence for the storyline he wants to convey.

For better—but mostly for worse—campaign 2016 is already here.

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“I think it is the worst kind of Republican consultant behavior to get into this kind of personal, you know, negative attack,” he said of Rove.