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The Sleeper Issue of 2020: Running on Empty

Why exhaustion should be added to the fitness-for-office checklist.

As the campaign heats up, there’s a lot of talk about Russian interference and how to prevent 2020 from being a reprise of 2016. There were, of course, many factors that influenced that election. In a one-point game (or a 107,000 vote margin), every shot, or missed shot, is the deciding shot. So here’s another factor that played a part in 2016 and will likely come back in 2020: exhaustion.

Remember, it was on the same day that Hillary Clinton refused to rest even after having been diagnosed with walking pneumonia that morning that she called “half” of Trump’s supporters a “basket of deplorables.” That was less than two months before the election and it dominated the news cycle for days afterwards. In her post-mortem book What Happened, she called the gaffe a “political gift” to Trump, one that she regretted handing to him.

Would she have served up such a petit cadeau had she not been running on empty? We’ll never know — but we do know what sleep deprivation and burnout do to us. Here’s the list of effects found in a study from the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research: decreased global emotional intelligence, reduced empathy toward others and quality of interpersonal relationships, reduced impulse control and difficulty with delay of gratification, reduced positive thinking and action orientation, and a greater reliance on formal superstitions and magical thinking processes.

It reads like a fairly concise summary of the current presidency that the now vast array of Democratic candidates are vying to end. And that’s no accident, since, in addition to all of his other limitations and regressive beliefs, Trump also believes he can function well on little sleep. “I have a great temperament for success,” he said during a 2015 campaign rally in Illinois. “You know, I’m not a big sleeper. I like three hours, four hours. I toss, I turn, I beep-de-beep, I want to find out what’s going on.”

And what’s going on turns out to be a lot of magical thinking. Trump loves to crow about “fake news.” And maybe he actually believes it — as a study by researchers from the University of California, Irvine and Michigan State University found, sleep deprivation can also create fake memories.

Another study from the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia, found that after 17 to 19 hours without sleep, which many if not most politicians would consider a normal workday, we start to experience levels of cognitive impairment equal to a blood alcohol level of .05 percent, just under the threshold for being legally drunk. One or two more hours without sleep, and we’re effectively drunk.

Unfortunately, running while drunk by running on empty is the rule, not the exception, among presidential candidates and political leaders. In his book Eyewitness to Power, David Gergen, advisor to many presidents, including Bill Clinton, described how the new president-elect refused to take time to recharge in the weeks leading up to his Inauguration. “He seemed worn out, puffy, and hyper,” Gergen wrote. “His attention span was so brief that it was difficult to have a serious conversation of more than a few minutes.” This led Gergen to attempt to give some helpful advice. “I tried to say gently that the presidency is a marathon, not a hundred-yard dash, and I hoped he would have a chance for some downtime in the three weeks still remaining,” Gergen wrote. “I don’t think I registered… Those who saw him in his first weeks at the White House often found him out of sorts, easily distracted, and impatient.”

The consequences? The first week of Clinton’s presidency was dominated by his flat-footed handling of the gays-in-the-military issue, which earned him criticism from all sides. As Gergen wrote, this style of working “planted seeds that almost destroyed Clinton’s presidency.” In fact, as Bill Clinton himself later acknowledged: “Every important mistake I’ve made in my life, I’ve made because I was too tired.”

And the nonstop schedule of the campaign trail can be just as grueling as the White House. In April of 2008, then-candidate Barack Obama threw his campaign off track with his comment, at a fundraiser in California, about “bitter” people who “cling to guns or religion.” Was it the result of running — and speaking — on empty? We can’t know for sure, but it was his second event of the evening, and the day before was spent, as the New York Times put it, “hopscotching around Indiana, North Dakota and Montana.”

Four years later, Mitt Romney took his campaign off the rails with his “47 percent” gaffe, claiming that’s the percentage who pay no income tax and who are “dependent upon government.” We don’t know Romney’s frame of mind at the time, but we do know it was his last of at least three events that day.

In the next cycle, long before Trump had sewn up the nomination, Timothy Egan zeroed in on his sleep habits as the “unified theory” of Trump. “When I see his puffy eyes and face, I don’t see a man who will carefully weigh all the facts and consequences of an action that could affect everyone on the planet,” wrote Egan in the New York Times. “I see an impulsive, vainly insecure person who cannot shut his mind down for a night.” Had Egan known how prescient he was, he might have had trouble sleeping himself.

So why do we still have political candidates trying to communicate how strong and disciplined they are by bragging about how little they sleep? What they’re saying, in essence, is: “I work in a way that ensures I make my decisions while effectively drunk — please put me in charge of the country.”

Right now, we don’t know much about the recharging habits of our current crop of candidates. For Bernie Sanders, we know — a positive — that he doesn’t use the snooze button (not surprising: it’s hard to imagine Bernie waking up gradually). For Joe Biden, not much either, beyond the fact that he once appeared to fall asleep during a speech by President Obama. In Biden’s defense, it was a speech about deficit reduction. Amy Klobuchar, according to an anonymous staffer, “doesn’t sleep,” and reportedly often sends emails between 1 and 4 a.m. Cory Booker, on the other hand, recently came out against our culture of macho sleep deprivation braggadocio and put it in the wider discussion of public health. “We have created this culture of non-sleep, where we literally brag about these things,” he said on the “Pod Free or Die” podcast. “We should be talking much more as a society about health and wellbeing… Good sleep, good family care, taking time to be with your family is not an indulgence, it’s necessary for that building block of communities.” As for the other candidates, I recommend that we all start asking these questions.

We want — or should want — candidates who value and respect science. When they talk about climate change, we expect them to accept the “scientific consensus.” Well, the consensus on sleep is unequivocal. As Matthew Walker, neuroscientist and director of the Center for Human Science at the University of California, Berkeley, put it: “No aspect of our biology is left unscathed by sleep deprivation. It sinks down into every possible nook and cranny.” Or, in other words, you ignore sleep at your peril. And if you’re the president, at our peril, too.

Our current president has certainly invigorated the debate over what fitness in office means. So in these early days of the campaign in which we’re getting to know our two dozen possible challengers, let’s use the occasion to widen the idea of fitness for office. Yes, past experience and the policies they put forward for the future are important. But so is how they take care of themselves, how committed they are to husbanding their decision-making resources, and how they plan to nurture their resilience to put those policies in action. Yes, we want to know what they’ll do in response to the 3 a.m. phone call, but we also want to know if they’re disciplined enough to have reserves to tap into before the phone rings.  

As we’ve seen in the last few years, transparency is important in elections. And we should add renewal and recovery habits to tax returns on the list of what we should always know about candidates before we step into the voting booth.

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