The Twilight of Mitch McConnell and the Spectre of 2024

The tape is painful to watch. Whatever you think of Mitch McConnell, it was simply a political car crash to see the Senate Minority Leader, during a press conference in his home state of Kentucky on Wednesday, freeze up and stare blankly from a lectern for more than thirty long seconds, even after an aide rushed to his side and asked gently, “Did you hear the question, Senator?” All the worse, the question to which he never responded was whether he would run again when his Senate term is up in three years. Ouch.

McConnell, who is eighty-one years old, has experienced a precipitous and very public decline since falling at a Washington hotel during a fund-raiser last March—and suffering a concussion. So far, the senator has refused to provide detailed information about his medical condition; indeed, his office sought to quell concerns after Wednesday’s event by claiming he was simply “momentarily lightheaded.” A letter from Congress’s attending physician, a day later, pronouncing him “medically clear” to keep up his schedule was hardly reassuring, either. The latest incident, coming after a similar moment of incapacity at a Capitol Hill press conference earlier this summer, has made clear that something serious is afflicting the top Republican in the Senate. In six months, McConnell has gone from the G.O.P.’s feared power broker to a symbol of how quickly things can go wrong for America’s fragile gerontocracy: running the world one minute, frail and unable to parry questions the next.

One obvious question is what McConnell’s problems mean for his Senate Republican conference. As the Senate’s longest-serving party leader—in January, he overtook the record held by Mike Mansfield, of Montana, who led the Democrats in the upper chamber from 1961 to 1977—McConnell has managed to keep his wing of the G.O.P. largely united and, during the Presidency of his former Senate colleague Joe Biden, even capable of occasional acts of bipartisan lawmaking. (See: the infrastructure bill.) A fierce partisan, McConnell arguably did as much as anyone to get Donald Trump elected, in 2016, then used his power during Trump’s tenure in the White House to shift the federal judiciary in a radically more conservative direction. But McConnell is also the closest thing his party has right now to a national leader of the non-Trump establishment. He has, famously, not spoken with Trump since December, 2020, when he publicly congratulated Biden for winning the election that Trump refused to concede. His abiding final mission has been to rally Republican support for Ukraine in its war against Russian aggression—a cause that Trump, an open admirer of Vladimir Putin, disdains.

All of which makes him a stark contrast to his counterpart across the Capitol, Speaker Kevin McCarthy, a more or less willing hostage to the spirit of burn-it-down Trumpism that prevails among his slim majority in the House of Representatives. Last November, McConnell faced an explicit challenge to his leadership after Republicans failed to win back the Senate in the midterm elections; only ten of his party’s forty-nine members voted against him and for the insurgent, Rick Scott. But Politico is already reporting on furtive consultations among Senate Republicans about whether to call an emergency meeting on McConnell’s leadership when the Senate is back in session, next week. No surprise there. Washington is a brutally unsentimental place; the smell of weakness brings out the sharks.

I suspect this is not yet the moment for an open effort to bring down McConnell, but the signs are there for a seismic power shift in the making. The possible heirs to his post are known around the Capitol as the three Johns—Senators Barrasso of Wyoming, Cornyn of Texas, and Thune of South Dakota. Like McConnell, all three are considered members of the Senate G.O.P.’s establishment wing. But none has the power, clout, or stature of McConnell, never mind the reputation for Machiavellian maneuvering that he so relished in his prime. And, if there were any doubt about the direction in which the Party’s momentum is trending, Trump’s current stampede toward the 2024 Presidential nomination seems to offer a loud answer. It speaks clearly to the moment that it was President Biden and not ex-President Trump who called McConnell with words of consolation. “He was his old self on the telephone,” Biden said, as he called the Republican whom Democrats have loved to hate in recent years “a friend.” “I’m confident he’s going to be back to his old self.”

Biden, quite simply, needs McConnell right now. At a time when many Republicans are increasingly taking their cues from Trump and questioning U.S. support for Ukraine, Biden is counting on McConnell and his Senate Republicans to push through twenty-four billion dollars in urgently needed additional funds. The fall’s marquee crisis is expected to be a showdown between the Biden Administration and McCarthy’s restive House Republicans, who have threatened to shut down the government when federal funding runs out at the end of September. What happens if McConnell is out of action to help make a deal?

Politically, McConnell’s decline might also be something of a boon to Biden. At least, it’s awkward timing for Trump and Republicans, who have been planning to make Biden’s age and capacity a major theme of the 2024 Presidential campaign. National polls show an overwhelming majority of voters, including many in Biden’s own party, consider the President too old to seek a second term. The latest A.P./N.O.R.C. survey, released this week, put the figure at three-quarters of the over-all electorate, and sixty-nine per cent of Democrats. When the pollsters asked an open-ended question about what word first springs to mind about Biden, the largest percentage of responses—twenty-six per cent—came under the heading of “Old/Outdated/Retire/Elderly/Aging/Senile Dementia.” Another fifteen per cent responded with “Slow/Confused/Idiot/Ignorant/Sleepy/Gaffe/Bumbling.” Trump’s years of taunting the President as Sleepy Joe have clearly had an effect. Yet Biden is a year younger than McConnell and, for now at least, notably more vigorous.

No wonder the loyal Trumpist Marjorie Taylor Greene was quick to throw McConnell over. Soon after video circulated on Wednesday of his Kentucky disaster, she pronounced him, along with several Democratic politicians, including Biden and the ninety-year-old Senator Dianne Feinstein, “not fit for office.” Expect more of this to come. It is a bizarre fact of our current politics that Republicans are preparing to unite around the banner of the seventy-seven-year-old Trump in the name of averting the catastrophe of a President who is too old to serve.

But, in politics, you run with what you’ve got. It’s not so much that voters aren’t concerned about Trump’s age but that, when it comes to him, they have so much more to worry about. In the same A.P. survey, voters’ views of Trump were also highly negative, but fixated more on his chronic lying, alleged criminality, and reckless personality. Among the words volunteered to describe the ex-President: “Corrupt,” “Criminal,” “Crooked,” “Compromised,” “Traitor,” “Con Artist,” “Puppet,” “Bully,” “Mean,” “Jerk,” “Hateful,” “Loudmouth,” “Liar,” “Dishonest,” and “Untrustworthy.” Together, those made up more than a quarter of all responses.

It’s the nature of politics to seek advantage in a crisis. The sad twilight of Mitch McConnell will prove to be no exception. But what I keep coming back to is a different and likely even more consequential question: What if Biden has his own McConnell moment? Imagine it happening in the latter days of the 2024 campaign, with Trump as the Republican nominee and the fate of the free world itself on the line. This is hardly an implausible hypothetical. There are, sadly, a million possibilities—a health scare, a bad fall as McConnell experienced, just the accelerated condition of advanced old age. The reign of the octogenarians is a risky bet for a democracy. ♦

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