The brain of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell locked up in front of cameras for the second time in a month. When reporters in Covington, Kentucky, asked the top Republican if he would seek reelection in 2026, he appeared to shut down for 30 seconds, as if the lithium ion battery in his chassis had been removed. A helper tried to revive him, and he said “OK” and answered a few questions before leaving.
It was reminiscent of an occurrence that occurred at a press conference in late July where legislation was being discussed on Capitol Hill. Without any transition or punctuation, the senator’s speech scaffolding gave way and he had to leave the podium. To be clear, neither of these shutdowns was like the ones we all encounter, wherein we lose our train of thought or are unable to find the appropriate words or jargon with which to express ourselves. McConnell’s followers have rescued him twice now after he just went offline. On Wednesday, his staff stated he “felt momentarily lightheaded,” echoing Mitch’s explanation after his July blackout, when he returned to face reporters and said, “I’m fine.”
McConnell would have been placed on administrative leave for a medical checkup if he were a bus driver, broadcaster, or teacher, all professions that, like legislative leadership, require instantaneous reactions. Instead, the political establishment seems paralysed in the face of Mitch’s verbal standstill. The president and others have expressed “concerns” about McConnell’s episodes, using those words to stand in for the more direct inquiries that have been raised. However, except from a few passing references to the fact that McConnell will see a doctor and the possibility of a conversation inside the Senate GOP, the Washington elite is acting groggy and insisting that everything is OK.
The senator, who is 81 years old, has had other medical scares in recent years. In March, he fell and hit his head, requiring hospitalisation and treatment. He broke his shoulder in a fall in 2019 at his house in Louisville, Kentucky. When reporters asked him about his bandaged and bruised hands in October of 2020, he responded with a line that has since become standard operating procedure. Simply put, “I’m fine,” he told her. McConnell’s staff, who were well aware of the senator’s perambulatory instability, warned reporters at the time not to step on the senator’s feet should they cause another spill.
Falls are common among the elderly. This is a proven fact. In June, 80-year-old Vice President Joe Biden fell over a sandbag. Memory loss is a normal part of ageing. Also a verifiable fact. A slip or a lapse in isolation are not emergency situations. However, McConnell is not your run-of-the-mill example of a clumsy senior citizen who can be helped back on his feet with no disruption to the rest of his community. Not only does he represent Kentucky in the United States Senate, but he also acts as a leader by negotiating judicial and Cabinet nominations, shepherding legislation, and rallying his party to run for office in 2024. A layperson might make the claim that McConnell needs emergency care and bed rest without risking accusations of unlicensed medical practise. However, other senators have merely expressed muted, largely positive interest in McConnell’s health. When he first returned from his fall, he was understandably groggy. Senator Tommy Tuberville (R-Alabama) observed in July, “But he’s picked up a lot more energy since then.”
McConnell is hardly the only senior senator whose declining health is overlooked by the Senate so that he can keep his comfortable position of power. Supporters of Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) have, at least initially, hidden the seriousness of her health issues, despite her apparent rapid physical and mental decline. The 90-year-old had to be coaxed into voting “aye” in a committee meeting by her Democratic colleague Sen. Patty Murray in July. Six House members have publicly called for Feinstein’s resignation, more than double the number who have called for McConnell’s. In contrast, the senators’ reaction to the Feinstein narrative is reminiscent of a scene from the grim comedy The Death of Stalin, with senators acting as cowardly as the Politburo members who gathered around Joseph Stalin’s deathbed and hesitated to replace him until he was completely cold.
The 25th Amendment, which controls the removal of a president who is mentally or physically unable to serve, is not what is needed in the Senate. Similarly, instituting age limitations for senators to address the body’s ageing demographic would not magically improve things. Strokes and other illnesses that deplete mental capacity can happen to people of any age. Equally ineffective would be a medical board with the authority to attest to the mental and physical health of legislators. We don’t always enthusiastically follow our doctors’ orders. Who would volunteer to have them investigate potential lawmakers?
The Senate needs to show some backbone. Senators should use their persuasive abilities, their parliamentary skills at replacing leadership, and good old-fashioned jawboning to convince the mentally muddled or seriously ill to remove themselves from the pinnacle of power and, if necessary, to resign, rather than playing the supportive colleague for other legislators who struggle to do their jobs or otherwise turning their backs on the infirm and doddering.
There is trouble brewing in the United States Senate. No one should be seen as indispensable, no matter the political upheaval it may cause. And leaving the Senate shouldn’t be done with your feet first. It’s another sign of dizziness to assert otherwise.