Why Karl’s Rove’s Bizarre “Brain Damage” Theory Won’t Be the Strangest GOP Attack Hillary Clinton Faces

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May 13 2014 6:11 PM

Paging Dr. Rove!

Karl Rove’s outlandish claim about Hillary Clinton’s brain is only the first of many bizarre charges she will face.

Hillary Clinton
Karl is getting not just texts from Hillary, but indications that she has brain damage.

Photo by Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

If only Donald Sterling had opinions about Hillary Clinton. There is apparently a requirement that the political world go periodically insane about the former secretary of state. Sterling has just the kind of insane opinions that would really drive up business for whoever benefits from these bouts of madness. Instead, we’re left with Karl Rove’s opinions about Hillary Clinton’s brain. “Thirty days in the hospital?” he said, referring to Clinton’s four-day treatment in late December 2012 for a blood clot after a fall earlier in the month.* “And when she reappears, she’s wearing glasses that are only for people who have traumatic brain injury? We need to know what’s up with that.” Rove later took to television and the Washington Post to say that he merely meant that Clinton would get scrutiny from the press about her health.

John Dickerson John Dickerson

John Dickerson is Slate's chief political correspondent and author of On Her Trail. Read his series on the presidency and on risk.

She will now get it earlier, thanks to Dr. Rove.

This is the problem with having so much gravitational pull that the New York Times depicts you as a planet. Everything, including air tanks from Skylab, comes your way. In the last week, Hillary Clinton has been connected to issues ranging in seriousness from Benghazi and Boko Haram to armchair speculation about her brain health and role in orchestrating Monica Lewinsky’s comeback. This is the downside of having no viable opposition. Clinton has no likely opponents who might draw the GOP’s fire and no announced campaign that creates a distracting horserace for the press to cover.

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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.* 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.

This is a spasm miles away from the election, so no one can make any serious claims this will matter. (It won’t.) But it does highlight a historical quirk of the Clinton candidacy, if there is one. If Hillary Clinton runs, she will be the most uncontested presidential nominee not running for a second term since 1908, when both William Howard Taft and William Jennings Bryan had relatively easy ascensions. Even if she does get a challenger, David Plouffe is probably right that their candidacies will merely be MSNBC auditions. The press will put the resources it would have sunk into covering the Democratic horserace into an evaluation of Clinton’s biography, record, and yes, her health. It was always certain that the media examination of Hillary Clinton would come earlier than usual. Still, the republic can sleep soundly knowing Dr. Rove is already making emergency calls.

*Correction, May 14, 2014: This article originally misstated that Clinton fell in late December. She fell earlier in the month. She was admitted to the hospital in late December. This article also misstated that Clinton did not wear special glasses after she was released to the hospital.

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