It was hard to watch that Mitch McConnell video. That’s the second time he’s gone blanko in recent weeks in front of the cameras. We have no idea how often it’s happened when he wasn’t in front of the cameras. But odds are pretty good those aren’t the only two times.
Word is that some senators are considering a meeting to try to figure out what to do about this. There does exist a rump anti-McConnell faction of a sort: Florida GOP Senator Rick Scott, the old Medicare fraudster, mounted a challenge to McConnell last year. It failed badly, but Scott did get 10 votes. One Republican senator told Politico that any attempt to dethrone McConnell “will be a rerun of last time.”
I’m sure that’s true today. But I wonder how long it will hold. The reason is pretty simple: The McConnell video is really about Joe Biden.
Why? Age, obviously. McConnell is 81. Biden is 80. Trump and the GOP (and Fox News and One America and Sinclair and so on) are going to be making Biden’s age a major issue in the presidential campaign. And I have to say you can’t blame them. Polls show that Biden’s age is obviously his greatest vulnerability.
This seems to set up a situation where his fellow Republicans are going to throw McConnell to the wolves. Think about it. If they keep McConnell and defend him and say everything’s fine, they’re saying that an octogenarian who is clearly losing his connection to terra firma is just fine, everything’s hunky dory, and he’s totally up to the job. That is implicitly saying that Biden too is up to the job of president. And that is something they cannot do.
They can’t do it for plain political reasons because they would be taking an untenably hypocritical position (not that that ever stops them, but this is a high-profile matter). But it’s even more than that: They can’t do it because it would offend Dear Leader, and that, above all, they cannot do.
Donald Trump wants to talk, and talk, about Biden’s age. But he can’t do that effectively if his own party is keeping an 81-year-old man in his rigorous job. Especially when that 81-year-old man has had episodes like these last two.
And besides that, Trump hates McConnell, as we know. The aspersions are numerous. Earlier this month at a South Carolina dinner, where Lindsey Graham was once again sitting at the top of Mount Genuflection, Trump said: “These guys, what they’re doing with the election interference and the Senate has to step up and do something. The House is doing a lot of things. The Senate, under perhaps the worst leader in the history of the country running the Senate, Mitch McConnell, has to stand up and do something.” He also speculated that the Democrats must “have something” on McConnell. That’s Trump’s way of saying that he has something on McConnell, which he wants McConnell to believe, whether it’s true or not.
McConnell may be safe for now as his colleagues rally around him. But if he has one more episode, that’ll be three, and three is (for no particularly good reason, but it is) a magic number when it comes to these sorts of things. People will start asking then, if not before, how the GOP can stand behind McConnell yet call Biden too old. Trump will make his party choose: It’s Mitch or me. And they’ll throw McConnell to the wolves.
Mind you, I’m not suggesting we throw a pity party here. McConnell has set a pretty high bar of Trump capitulation himself over the years. In 2016, he offered Trump high praise right before the election. In 2020, The New Yorker’s Jane Mayer wrote a long profile that called McConnell Trump’s “enabler-in-chief.” True, McConnell has criticized Trump here and there, most memorably in that speech after the second impeachment. But remember—that speech came after McConnell voted to acquit.
That was the key moment right there, the moment that history will remember. McConnell reportedly told an aide at the time, “The Democrats will take care of the son of a bitch for us.” But this wasn’t true and couldn’t be true, and he knew it. The Democrats had 50 Senate votes, and 67 are needed to convict. Seven Senate Republicans voted with the Democrats. But McConnell had it in his power to direct 10 more votes toward conviction. He chickened out.
So did Kevin McCarthy, who on January 6 itself was outraged at Trump’s actions. But both men pulled back. In their book This Will Not Pass, New York Times reporters Alexander Burns and Jonathan Martin wrote: “The leaders’ swift retreat in January 2021 represented a capitulation at a moment of extraordinary political weakness for Mr. Trump—perhaps the last and best chance for mainstream Republicans to reclaim control of their party from a leader who had stoked an insurrection against American democracy itself.”
That was the one chance Republicans had to seize their party back from Trump (and just return to the normal, pre-Trump, run-of-the-mill racist dog-whistling, xenophobia, and warmongering). And it was all in McConnell’s hands, much more than McCarthy’s. The votes of 10 more Senate GOP heavyweights, including McConnell’s own vote, might not have sealed Trump’s fate; his following would still have been rabid. But a conviction would have emboldened many in the party to speak out against Trump and start to move past him.
McConnell couldn’t do it. His stated reason—that there were constitutional issues raised by convicting a president who was no longer in office—was a thin rationale. He was afraid. He needed to hold on to his power. And now he’s held on too long. I don’t wish the man ill health. But if I’m right, and this ends up being his downfall, all because of a man he once had the power to neutralize but did not, it will be the kind of ignoble end that a man who turned the U.S. Senate into an ideological gutter deserves.
This article first appeared in Fighting Words, a weekly TNR newsletter authored by editor Michael Tomasky. Sign up here.