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Mitch McConnell and the Senate GOP: Breaking Up Is Hard to Do

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) got some small amount of good news on Thursday, following the second incident in which the Kentuckian appeared to freeze for an uncomfortable amount of time, while on camera. The U.S. Capitol's attending physician, Adm. Brian Patrick Monahan, cleared McConnell to resume his normal schedule.

We are not physicians, and were not present for the examination, of course. That said, it's hard to assign too much significance to this finding. Monahan is not McConnell's regular physician, and he's also not a neurologist (his specialty is hematology and medical oncology). Further, just because McConnell was OK at, say, noon yesterday does not mean he's OK overall. The two incidents caught on camera were pretty frightening, and it seems rather unlikely that someone who is on-camera 2% of the time and off-camera 98% would only have this happen during the 2%. The explanation offered by McConnell's staff, namely "dehydration," is also a bit hard to swallow (no pun intended).

And the camera freezes are only part of the story; there's also the falls and the bruised hands and the other indications that McConnell is no longer the picture of health. It is clear enough that he's slipping that Politico's Jack Shafer authored a piece yesterday headlined: "Why Is Nobody Doing Anything About Mitch McConnell?" As you can probably guess, there is an extended discussion of Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) in the piece, too.

Shafer used to be very good, and sometimes still is, but he's also prone to sometimes producing flabby stuff these days. The current piece is certainly in the latter category. Here is Shafer's answer to the problem he proposes:

What the Senate needs is some spine. Instead of playing the supportive colleague for other legislators who struggle to do their jobs or otherwise turn their backs on the infirm and doddering, senators need to use their powers of persuasion, their parliamentary skills at replacing leadership and old-fashioned jawboning to persuade the mentally muddled or seriously ill to remove themselves from the pinnacles of power and even, if necessary, to resign.

In other words, when the Senate is stuck with a McConnell or a Feinstein, they should DO SOMETHING DAMMIT.

Shafer is certainly clever enough to know, column deadlines notwithstanding, that it just doesn't work like that. Absent serious malfeasance, the Senate has no precedent for ejecting members of diminished capacity (and don't think this problem hasn't come up before). If talking or jawboning or whatever was enough to get someone to step down, Feinstein would have been sent off to the Old Senators' Home at least 9 months ago. It's not so easy to go from "one of the most important people in the country" to "spending my days on doctor's appointments and waiting for death" overnight, which is basically the situation for a Senator not well enough for the intermediate step of writing/teaching/serving on corporate boards/etc. If we were in McConnell's or Feinstein's positions, we probably wouldn't step down, either. Better to keep going, as best you can, and hope you can die with your boots on.

It is also the case that many of McConnell's and Feinstein's colleagues consider the two infirm senators to be friends, or mentors, or role models, or all of the above. To prevent them from going out on their own terms would be a tough thing to do. In McConnell's case, the situation is made even more complicated by the fact that he's the leader of his conference. Those who do not feel loyalty to him, and are just making a power play, run the risk of being frozen out, and getting assigned to the Select Committee on Sticking It Where the Sun Doesn't Shine (see Scott, Rick). Those who do feel loyalty to him have to ask themselves: (1) Can anyone else keep the Conference basically unified, and (2) Can we afford a leadership fight right now, given the upcoming budget messiness?

With all of this said, there is some movement against McConnell's continuance in his current position. Some Republican senators are at least pondering having the meeting that would be necessary to discuss a leadership change. The fact that they might just have a meeting where they could possibly discuss the slight possibility of maybe demoting McConnell speaks to how far removed they are from actually demoting McConnell. That said, they're also much closer to that result than they were before this week's freeze-up.

There's also some carping from outsiders. The National Review, which has rather more cachet in right-wing circles than Jack Shafer does, published an editorial yesterday headlined "Mitch McConnell Needs to Step Aside." If you read it, there is no doubt that the editors are big fans of the Senator. And they don't think he needs to quit entirely, merely that he needs to give up his leadership position at some point. They don't exactly put a timeline on it, but they don't think it would be appropriate for him to remain leader for the balance of this congressional session, much less the balance of his term in office (his current term ends on Jan. 3, 2027).

There are also some non-Senate Republican politicians calling for McConnell to step down (or, to be more precise, taking potshots at him). We mentioned Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) yesterday. And Nikki Haley has also joined the chorus. Appearing on Fox, the wannabe president said that McConnell has to go, and referred to the Senate as "the most privileged nursing home in the country." Very classy.

We do not think that Greene and Haley actually speak for anyone in the Republican Party who has any meaningful amount of power. In fact, we suspect that their remarks have very little to do with the Senator, and everything to do with the President. That is to say, if Greene and Haley don't call for McConnell to step down, then anytime they slur Joe Biden as old/demented/incapable, the follow-up question will be: "What about Mitch McConnell?" This way, they don't have to hem and haw and try to explain why the two circumstances are different. This is also a main reason why you're not hearing many, or any, Democrats call for McConnell to step down. They don't want the follow up question: "What about Joe Biden?"

Not too long ago, we wrote that if McConnell did not regain the majority leadership in 2022, he probably never would. Quite a few readers took us to task for that, but now we're definitely feeling good about that particular prediction. If there are no more public freezes (and that may be a pretty big "if"), we would guess that McConnell keeps his current position until the end of the session, and then spends the last 2 years of his term as a backbencher. (Z)

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