As Bernie Sanders' heart surgery halts his campaign, should presidential elections now have an age parameter?

The 78-year-old Vermont senator underwent surgery at a hospital in Las Vegas and reportedly had two stents inserted into an artery

                            As Bernie Sanders' heart surgery halts his campaign, should presidential elections now have an age parameter?

Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders on Wednesday, October 2, complained about chest pains and was admitted to a hospital in Las Vegas where he underwent surgery for artery blockage. Two stents were reportedly inserted into an artery and it is not clear when the 78-year-old Vermont senator will return to the presidential race.

While his supporters believe that it's only a matter of time before Sanders returns and builds on his well-running campaign, the development has also put a focus on the age factor ahead of the first voting in a few months’ time.

Sanders is among the 12 Democratic candidates set to take part in the fourth presidential debate in Ohio on October 15.

Top 2020 candidates—on both sides—are 70 or above

The run-up to the 2020 presidential elections is seeing gerontocracy at play as three of the Democratic frontrunners besides their main opponent—President Donald Trump—are in the 70s.

In the 2016 elections, too, Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton had often come under the scanner for health-related issues while Trump’s weight, too, became a subject of discussion after his election to the office. 

Sanders is not a feeble man by any standard. Unlike some of his party contenders like Joe Biden, the senator doesn’t lose track of his arguments as signs of ageing. The man stands and walks around in his campaign events and, recently, even took part in sporting disciplines to make a statement on his fitness level.

During his first presidential bid, Sanders had released a letter from his doctor that said that he had no problems with his health. It conceded that the septuagenarian had suffered several ailments throughout his life, such as gout, but added that the man had normal readings as far as blood pressure and count are concerned.

However, his latest heart procedure could leave his supporters worried. A survey by Pew published in May said that only three percent of Democratic voters were in favor of having a 70-year-old president while as high as 47 percent felt that he or she should be in the 50s


Age requirements for US president  

As per Article II, Section1, Clause 5 of the American Constitution, it doesn't. “No Person except a natural born Citizen, or a Citizen of the United States, at the time of the Adoption of this Constitution, shall be eligible to the Office of President; neither shall any Person be eligible to that Office who shall not have attained to the Age of thirty five Years, and been fourteen Years a Resident within the United States," it said.

The qualifications hence are more related to the place of birth and residence than age. The rules do not say anything about the American president having to conform to certain standards. Neither there is any regulation that the incumbent has to undergo a physical examination once a year. He/she is neither under any legal obligation to disclose it  although Sanders, Biden and Elizabeth Warren—three of the top Democratic candidates—have vowed to release their medical records before the first set of voting takes place next February. 

It is often believed that for much of the 20th century, the presidents or candidates aspiring to become so underwent annual physical tests and released statements to the media as proof of their fitness. But, according to political observer Brad Porter in Quora, it was the presidents or candidates who had taken a decision on such testing and could easily conceal the results. There have been instances of American presidents having physical ailments and they decided against revealing it and yet it was perfectly okay.

25th Amendment

The American president is expected to be fit for the office but there is no self-enforcing legal definition or way to judge that fitness. The 25th Amendment to the constitution is something that comes to the closest to cover this aspect but even that is not very clear.

Trump's mental fitness

Section 4 of the amendment speaks about transferring the powers of a president who is incapacitated and this has come up for wide discussion in recent times since critics of Trump feel he is not mentally fit and hence unable to carry out his duties and responsibilities. They want the president removed under the 25th Amendment and consider the Cabinet’s refusal to do as something inappropriate. His supporters, however, feel that trying to remove a president on grounds of mental health will be like a coup and is something not desirable.

The  Constitution has left some ambiguity over determining inability. It is also not clear on whether an incapacitated president would retake power once he recovers, from the vice president. The country saw a void getting created because of this legal loophole quite a few times in the past. When President Garfield gained and lost consciousness for a long time after getting shot in 1881, his deputy Chester Arthur refused to act in his place. 

Disqualification due to health issues

Coming back to the health of the candidates running for the presidential /vice-presidential post, there have been instances when a candidate left the fray because of illness.

Thomas Eagleton, for example, was moved out of the vice-presidential race in 1972 after it was reported that he was hospitalized for depression. In 1995, health law and human rights expert George J Annas wrote for the New England Journal of Medicine: “The health status of presidential candidates has been seen as fair game by the press.”

Though practised generally, it is not that presidential candidates have always released their health records.

In 1976, Democratic candidate Eugene McCarthy refused to unveil his records on grounds of privacy. In 1992, Bill Clinton also disagreed to release his health records while running for the first time, and when he did so in 1996, the opponent Republicans asked if he had a serious health ailment. His opponent that year, Bob Dole, however, issued his health details. Barack Obama unveiled a single-page letter in 2008 ahead of his first term but released results of lab tests later. John McCain, who died of cancer last year, put out for review 1,200 pages of medical records.

Releasing health records has not been a standardized practice in the US compared with the release of tax records, but after the case of Sanders’ illness, the issue could snowball in the Democratic camp in the days to come before the party’s voters finalize their choice for the elections next year.

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