Two high-profile incidents in quick succession involving Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) and Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) have put the issue of aging politicians front and center.
But the questions raised around mental capacity and fitness for office have no easy answers.
Proposals that might begin to address the issue, such as term limits or cognitive tests beyond a certain age, confront an instant Catch-22. In order to be enacted, they need the support of politicians who might be negatively impacted by them.
Meanwhile, the people around those politicians have generally no incentive to nudge them to change their minds.
“I think some of what drives these people to stay on forever is a personal power thing that they can’t let go of," progressive strategist Jonathan Tasini said. “The second thing that drives this, though, is the staff. I think what really gets ignored is how the staff cover for people who clearly can’t function, because they themselves don’t want to lose their power.”
This week’s incidents involved two of five current senators who are 80 or older.
First, McConnell appeared to freeze up, for unexplained reasons, while delivering remarks to reporters Wednesday.
The following day, Feinstein seemed confused during a committee roll-call vote. Feinstein started giving general remarks, when all that was required was that she cast her vote. “Just say ‘Aye,’” her colleague, Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), could be heard telling Feinstein.
Feinstein, 90, is the oldest sitting senator. McConnell is 81.
There are specific concerns about both senators, separate and apart from the broader issue of elected officials seeking to remain in office in their ninth decade.
McConnell suffered a concussion earlier this year in a fall at a Washington hotel — an incident in which he also suffered a broken rib. The accident kept McConnell away from the Senate of almost six weeks while he recuperated.
In the wake of Wednesday’s incident, it has also been reported by multiple outlets that McConnell suffered two other falls this year — one in Helsinki, and one at Washington’s Ronald Reagan National Airport.
Medical professionals have speculated as to whether what happened Wednesday may have been a seizure or mini-stroke.
The majority leader himself has professed to be “fine.” His staff have said of the incident that he felt “lightheaded.”
The Feinstein incident was, in some ways, more worrisome, given that concerns have been raised about her cognitive abilities for some time.
In late 2020, she asked the same question twice in succession, apparently unaware she was repeating herself, in a hearing with then-Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey.
Last year, the San Francisco Chronicle reported that four senators, including three Democrats, had told its reporters about their worries regarding Feinstein. One congressional Democrat representing California anonymously described a meeting at which he or she had to reintroduce themselves to Feinstein repeatedly.
Feinstein, who is retiring at the next election, has defended her own capabilities. Her staff has said she was “preoccupied” during Thursday’s roll call vote.
Other allies have suggested there is an element of sexism in the apparent desire to push Feinstein out. They note examples of past male senators, including Sens. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.) and Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.), whose capacities were widely believed to be diminished late in life but who did not face the same public pressure to step down.
Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), 83, was one of Feinstein’s most vigorous defenders in that regard. Pelosi announced she was stepping down as the leader of House Democrats last year, having spent 20 years atop her conference.
But the McConnell and Feinstein episodes are also important because of the way in which they illuminate a larger picture.
President Biden is 80 and prone to slips-ups, as when he recently twice referred to the war in "Iraq” when he clearly meant “Ukraine.”
Former President Trump is 77 and, while rarely hesitant in the Biden fashion, he often launches into bizarre asides during his long campaign speeches.
It’s not as if the issue of aging politicians is off-limits. GOP presidential contender Nikki Haley has proposed mandatory cognitive tests for office-holders 75 and older.
Her proposal was seen more as a shot across the bow of Biden and Trump specifically rather than an idea that had any real chance of being enacted. Haley, 51, talks often on the campaign trail about the need for “new generational leaders.”
Talk also bubbles up intermittently about term limits for senators and House members.
Term limits face the philosophical question of whether voters should be denied the chance to reelect who they wish for as long as they wish — presidency excepted. There is also the practical difficulty that politicians are not eager to vote to, in effect, abbreviate their own careers.
“The fact is, politicians — like pretty much everyone else — are living to older ages, and some people stay physically and mentally sharp and other people deteriorate somewhat,” said Tobe Berkovitz, a Boston University professor emeritus who specialized in political communications.
“The question is, should it be up to the voters or up to the doctors to decide when someone should be out of office.”
There is also the question of how any restriction on age or mental abilities would be codified or enforced. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) is 81, and even his most staunch ideological opponents don’t seriously question his mental capacity.
For the moment, it seems most likely that the issue of aging politicians will remain a conundrum without an obvious solution.
“It’s not that you reach 75 and you should be gone,” said Tasini.
The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage.