For the second time in two months, Mitch McConnell was caught stunned and silent in front of cameras. This wasn’t some tactic or strategy, and it wasn’t because he was dodging a question. Frankly, it looked like the octogenarian Senate minority leader was…well, having a stroke.
Now the only person who knows what’s actually happening to the recently concussed senator is his physician, but the long, seemingly-involuntary pauses when asked pretty straightforward questions doesn’t look good! From a man who fell down a flight of stairs less than six months ago while on the wrong side of his 80th birthday, it probably signals serious issues around his health.
Of course, McConnell is hardly the first senator to decay in office; he’s not even the most obviously ancient Senator in the current Congress since California Senator Dianne Feinstein’s still there. But his public displays of disconnection are disquieting reminders that we are ruled by people who have more time behind them than ahead. And that’s not great when we have problems that require decades of foresight and care to unravel.
McConnell’s long stint as GOP Senate leader is the product of a tenacious hold on power and an ability to deliver for donors, neither of which are easy to replicate. So there have been few challengers to McConnell’s position over the years, and none that have seriously threatened him. That has been his strength for term after term, whether his caucus included legitimate moderates like former Senator Olympia Snowe (R-ME) or arch conservatives like Senator John Cornyn (R-TX). McConnell has had an iron grip on his votes, knowing how to pull and pressure members, reassure donors, and keep Democrats off-balance—all talents that his successor is unlikely to wield, let alone as successfully as McConnell has.
This is both the explanation for why he’s still in power and why no one has gently tried to push him out of it. McConnell is a legend of obstruction, the architect of the (deeply corrupt) conservative Supreme Court majority, the longest tenured Republican Senate leader in history, and the chief executioner of so much progressive legislation that he might have single-handedly prevented half a century of advancement. He has also been—less obviously—the architect of multiple Republican Senate majorities. McConnell has done so much for Republicans that he’s not really replaceable, and his absence might compromise the tenuous grip Republicans have on practical politics.
For all the wild extremism that the GOP has gotten into over the last few years (decades), Mitch McConnell has turned it into actual, functioning politics. Want to pack the Supreme Court? He’s the one who sold the lie about the “Biden Rule” preventing Obama from appointing Merrick Garland, and he’s the one who fast-tracked Amy Coney Barrett while voters were filling out their ballots. Want legislation to stall or pass? McConnell will have the votes either way. Want to strip mine American democracy and sell off the parts, transforming the country slowly into an autocratic regime? Yeah, Mitch has got the answers to that—for the right price.
So the possible goodbye to McConnell isn’t really a moment for sympathy—something that he’s never offered to any of the millions of citizens harmed by his decisions; it’s a moment for strategy. The 2024 map may shift without his leadership, giving Democrats a good chance in what would otherwise be a bad cycle. Maybe the thin Democratic Senate majority becomes stronger when the opposition has to function without McConnell’s centrifugal force. Maybe without him, we even get our own old fogies to accept that they’re yearning for a bygone (never been) era and that Republicans are entirely unhinged. It might turn out that the sunset of the most corrosive senator in almost two centuries means the rise of a country that works better for the rest of us.