In December 1998, Rep. Bob Livingston, Republican of Louisiana, was set to succeed Rep. Newt Gingrich as speaker of the House. Gingrich had announced his resignation from Congress and the speakership in the wake of a disastrous midterm election for Republicans as well as revelations that he’d been having an affair with a House staffer who was more than two decades younger.
This was a problem for the Republicans given the impeachment of then-President Bill Clinton over matters stemming from his own infidelity. But before Livingston could get the gavel, it was revealed that he, too, had cheated on his wife. Livingston responded by announcing he would resign immediately. Among those most opposed to Livingston’s decision: President Clinton. The White House implored him to reconsider. The last thing Democrats wanted was for an adulterous politician to resign in contrition rather than put his party, his country, and his family through more needless drama.
That moment came to mind last week when Joe Biden gave his full support to Mitch McConnell, in the wake of a second disturbing episode in which the 81-year-old Senate minority leader briefly went catatonic when taking questions from reporters. “I’m confident he’s going to be back to his old self,” Biden told reporters. He dismissed McConnell’s struggles since a concussion-inducing fall earlier this year, as simply “part of his recovery.”
The last thing Biden—who will be 81 in November—needs is for Republicans to show some consistency on the issue of age and public service, particularly when the vast majority of Americans, including two-thirds of Democrats, believe Biden is too old to run again.
That’s one of the funny things about partisanship, it can impose consistency, even in an age of partisan expediency. For instance, during the “Me Too” era, Democrats invested a lot in the issue of sexual impropriety. Among other things, it was a useful and legitimate cudgel against a Republican president who could be heard on tape boasting of sexually assaulting women (a president who, more recently, was found liable in a civil trial of sexually abusing E. Jean Carroll). So when former Democratic Sen. Al Franken was credibly accused of crossing the line with women, he found it necessary to resign.
In fairness, the McConnell-Biden comparison isn’t perfect. McConnell’s difficulties reportedly stem from a bad fall last March. And while Biden often seems confused or lethargic, he hasn’t had an episode as disturbing as the two McConnell freeze-ups caught on camera.
McConnell’s aides, colleagues, and others say that in private McConnell seems like his old self. Moreover, as high-powered as McConnell is, the job isn’t as demanding as being president, never mind running for president. It seems Republicans are comfortable with a wait-and-see approach to McConnell’s health. But the consequences of McConnell’s fall raise the stakes for Biden. Falls are dangerous—and common—for the elderly. Having a president one tumble away from perhaps debilitating cognitive impairment is not reassuring.
Constitutionally, McConnell is merely one important player among 100 senators, and 535 legislators. Meanwhile, Biden commands the entire executive branch.
And, while I think the elevation of the president to a quasi-monarchical figure who “runs” the country and therefore needs Kennedyesque “vigor” is pernicious nonsense, that view is widely held by Americans in both parties.
The White House knows this, which is why so much of their spin on the age issue falls flat.
White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre insists that the issue for the voters is Biden’s record of ability to “get things done” thanks to his decades of political experience. It’s the best argument they have, but it doesn’t speak to the issue that causes 7 out of 10 Democrats to think he’s too old to serve another term. And her reassurances that “it is hard for us to keep up with this president” evoke eye rolls, given that he’s spent something like 40 percent of his presidency on personal nights away from the White House and has a very light schedule.
Politically, the basic problem for Biden is that, while Americans don’t necessarily know a lot about the finer points of public policy or the arcana of the legislative process, they do know what an oldster, already well-past life expectancy, looks like when age starts to take its toll.
The Democrats are betting that even if Americans think Biden is physically unfit for the presidency, he can beat Donald Trump because Trump is characterologically unfit. The bet might pay off, but it strikes me as a wildly irresponsible gamble.