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Whenever a lawmaker who is advancing in years appears infirm or confused in public, or takes some time to convalesce, there are questions about their fitness for office.
This week, it’s Mitch McConnell, the top Republican in the Senate, who froze and appeared confused during a Capitol Hill news conference Wednesday. After recovering off camera, McConnell returned to take questions and later left smiling, telling reporters that he was doing just fine and had just been “sandbagged” when he was unable to speak.
Earlier this year, McConnell could not hear reporters at a different news conference. Plus, McConnell is known to have fallen at least three times in the past year, according to CNN’s Manu Raju.
He slipped on ice before a meeting in Finland.
He fell getting off a plane at Reagan National Airport in Washington.
His fall at the Waldorf Astoria in Washington led to a concussion and broken ribs that sidelined him for weeks.
A fall several years ago at home in Kentucky caused a shoulder fracture.
Writes Raju of the way McConnell walks on Capitol Hill:
McConnell, 81, was a survivor of polio as a child and has long walked with a slight limp. He walks on stairs one at a time, and at times rests his hand on an aide to assist him through the Capitol.
It’s notable that fellow Republicans are not concerned about McConnell’s ability to continue to do his job. At least not openly.
On Friday, McConnell’s office said in a statement that he plans to serve the rest of the 118th Congress as the GOP leader. It didn’t address his plans in the next Congress, which begins in 2025.
Democrats have increasingly turned on Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who at 90 is a shadow of the imposing figure she once cut on Capitol Hill. A long absence while she recovered from shingles gummed up their ability to move judicial nominees and some legislation and led some of her California colleagues to call for her to step down.
At a hearing Thursday, she had to be prodded, repeatedly, by fellow Democratic Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, to vote “aye” on a procedural vote.
Difficulties communicating are not exclusively the milieu of older lawmakers. Sen. John Fetterman of Pennsylvania won his seat despite suffering a stroke during last year’s campaign. He sought hospital care for depression this year. He now conducts interviews with the help of an iPad that transcribes questions in real time.
There’s an awkward gray area between legitimate questions about a person’s health and ageism.
Former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley got some early attention for her presidential campaign when she suggested a mental competency test for politicians over 75.
It was ageist, constitutionally dubious and savvy politics all at the same time.
Democrats are perpetually on defense about President Joe Biden’s age and acuity. Republicans have turned attacks against Biden, 80, into an art form, with viral videos to highlight his frequent verbal miscues.
Haley’s proposal highlighted that these attacks on Biden occur without a whiff of irony that Republicans’ own current presidential primary frontrunner, former President Donald Trump, is 77.
That neither Haley nor any of the other much younger Republicans challenging Trump in the 2024 primary field have so far caught fire is an indication that voters, who often skew older than the general population, don’t seem to care. They like a young and exciting candidate like, say, Barack Obama. They also like an older candidate, like, say, Ronald Reagan or Biden.
The most powerful force in American politics isn’t age or ideas, but rather incumbency.
As CNN’s Harry Enten wrote, the most shocking result out of the 2022 midterms was not that Democrats held the Senate or that Republicans only narrowly captured the House. It was that every single Senate incumbent who ran won. Only one incumbent governor running for reelection lost.
I tried and failed to find a comprehensive look at whether younger or older candidates generally win congressional elections. But CNN recently published an interesting look at which generations are serving as lawmakers.
Millennials are America’s largest generation by population, but they’re one of the smallest groups that make up Congress. That suggests baby boomers, despite reaching retirement age, are holding onto their seats.
McConnell’s age of 81 might seem old to the average American, but it’s far from out of the ordinary on Capitol Hill, where the average age for a sitting senator, 64, is eligible for Social Security.
McConnell has been a senator since 1985, which makes him the 12th longest-serving senator ever. He hasn’t said if he will run for reelection in 2026. The only other longer-serving senator is Sen. Charles Grassley, who is 89, and who won an eighth term last November.
Biden had more than 36 years logged as a senator when he left to become vice president in 2009. If he had stayed in the Senate, he’d now have a full half-century tenure and be about a year away from eclipsing West Virginia Sen. Robert Byrd’s Senate record of 51 years, five months and 26 days.
Byrd died while in office in 2010, and for the final years of his time as senator, he was frequently absent or had to use double canes or a wheelchair.
American life expectancy, despite advances in medical care, was 77.4 in 2020. It has declined in recent years, and not just because of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Researchers point to poor average diet, lack of universal health care and access to guns as factors that keep the Americans from living longer when compared with other countries.
But the dwindling financial security of retirement programs like Social Security and Medicare means that future generations will likely have to work longer. Their lawmakers will be right there with them.
This story has been updated with additional information.