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McConnell’s freezes complicate Republican attacks on Biden’s age

Old friends Joe Biden and Mitch McConnell seem to be giving each other political cover as they face questions about their age and health.
Joe Biden and Mitch McConnell.
President Joe Biden on July 31 and House Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., on Monday.Getty Images; Bloomberg

WASHINGTON — Joe Biden and Mitch McConnell struck up a friendship during their nearly quarter-century in the Senate together. Now in their 80s, the Democratic president and the Senate GOP leader appear to be giving political cover to each other as they fend off questions about their advanced age and health issues.

Notably, McConnell, R-Ky., 81, hasn’t joined Donald Trump, 77, and other Republicans who have attacked Biden’s age, health and mental acuity as he seeks re-election.

And after McConnell’s second freeze-up last week, Biden was one of the first to call McConnell, telling reporters that his “friend” sounded like “his old self” and that such episodes are a “part of his recovery” from a fall and a concussion this year. 

McConnell’s recent freezing spells and other health concerns have created a campaign conundrum for Republicans who have ripped Biden as too old and frail to continue as commander-in-chief for a second term but continue to stand by McConnell as one of the top leaders of the GOP.

“Because he’s having health problems, it makes it more difficult to attack Biden," a Republican senator said, referring to McConnell. "And yet I think it’s pretty apparent President Biden has significant health problems. There’s probably a double standard."

“Both sides have problems with aging leaders," the senator said.

McConnell's public health incidents have come as Republicans are ramping up attacks on Biden’s age and mental fitness, a subject voters are expressing major concerns about heading into the 2024 election cycle.

A Wall Street Journal poll out this week found that 73% of registered voters believe Biden is too old to run for president, while 60% said they think he isn’t “mentally up for the job.”

Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., 43, a critic of both Biden and McConnell, called out members of his own party for going after Biden while giving McConnell a pass.

“Am I concerned about his health? Yeah, I am. I’m concerned about the president’s health. I’m concerned about his health, and, as I said yesterday, I don’t think you can have it both ways,” Hawley said.

“I mean, if you’re concerned about the president’s ability to do his job — and I am, and a lot of Republicans say they are — then you’ve got to be concerned when it’s somebody from your own party, right?” he continued. “It can’t be sauce for the goose but not for the gander.”

But so far, the vast majority of Senate Republicans are sticking by McConnell after he froze for 30 seconds as he fielded questions from reporters in Kentucky last week, the second such freeze in two months. They include three potential McConnell successors, known as "The Three Johns" — Minority Whip John Thune of South Dakota, GOP Conference Chair John Barrasso of Wyoming and former Whip John Cornyn of Texas — all of whom have pledged their public support to McConnell.

“He has my full support, and he’ll have the support of the conference,” said Thune, 62, although he declined to say whether he believes McConnell will remain GOP leader after next year.

Returning to the Senate this week after the monthlong summer recess, McConnell sought to project a business-as-usual attitude and calm his colleagues’ nerves about his latest health scare.

On Wednesday, McConnell gave his usual floor speech and later addressed his health issues at Senate Republicans’ weekly closed-door lunch, walking his colleagues through the details of his doctor’s evaluation and informing them that he has had only two freezing episodes, both of which he said were captured by cameras, according to senators who attended the lunch.

Immediately after McConnell spoke, one of his former top aides, Steven Law, who runs a McConnell-aligned super PAC, gave a presentation touting strong GOP fundraising numbers — which Hawley described as “a little surprising for the setting.”

Leading his GOP leadership news conference after the lunch, McConnell, a polio survivor who has had mobility issues throughout his life, refused to speculate about what might be causing the freezes and made it clear he’s not going anywhere, saying: “I’m going to finish my term as leader, and I’m going to finish my Senate term.”

That ends in early 2027.

A House Republican close to leadership acknowledged that by staying put, McConnell has “put his colleagues in a difficult situation."

“It’s a pivotal time for the nation. And we need the leaders of both parties to be on their ‘A’ game,” the House Republican said. “And so it’s really not a time for someone in his position to be in that role if he’s not able to do it at his best.”

Rep. Dean Phillips, D-Minn., a rare lawmaker who has called on both Biden and Trump to step aside for generational change, said Republicans aren’t serious about criticizing Biden over age if they don’t do the same to McConnell or Trump.

“You can’t have it both ways. Risk is directly correlated to age, and it’s unreasonable to apply that lens to President Biden without doing so to Sen. McConnell and former President Trump,” Phillips said.

Others on Capitol Hill have faced tough questions about their age and health. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., who at 90 is the oldest member of the Senate, faced calls from two fellow Democrats to resign after she was hospitalized for nearly three months recovering from shingles. Rather than quit, she said she wouldn’t seek re-election in 2024.

Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, who won his eighth term last fall, is 89, though he still appears sharp and takes questions from reporters.

Last fall, as younger lawmakers clamored for change, the three top Democratic leaders in the House — Nancy Pelosi of California, 83, Steny Hoyer of Maryland, 84, and James Clyburn of South Carolina, 83 — passed the torch to a new generation of leaders after roughly two decades in power.

Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., 78, who is retiring after 2024, said his decision was about not age or health but rather longevity of service.

“Mine was a re-election decision,” Cardin said. “Next year will be 58 years that I’ve been in consecutive elected office. And for me, I think it was the right decision.”

Cardin dismissed age-related concerns about both Biden and McConnell. “I think each person has to be judged, and President Biden is doing an outstanding job as president,” he said.

A close Biden friend, Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., said he didn't believe Biden was thinking about politics when he called McConnell to check in on him the other day.

"They've had a long, reasonably close relationship because of the decades of service together. And I think it is a respectful relationship," Coons said. "And one of the things I most treasure about our president is his compassion, the way he does reach out to folks across the political spectrum when they or their family have a health concern."

Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, 76, said new blood is good for the country — especially when it comes to presidential candidates. If he is re-elected, Biden would be 82 when he takes office for a second term, while Trump would be 78 if he wins his party’s nomination and beats Biden.

“I think we’d all be better off if we had younger people, the next generation. I had hoped that we’d have a new generation who’d be running for president on the Democrat side and the Republican side,” said Romney, the 2012 GOP presidential nominee, who hasn’t said whether he will seek another Senate term or retire in 2024. “I wish both of the leaders — both Trump and Biden — were going to stand aside and let a new person come in, but they’re not doing that.”

Other Republicans were unapologetic about ridiculing Biden while defending McConnell.

“Well, I don’t ever attack Joe Biden’s age. The issue isn’t his age. His issue is that he doesn’t know where he is half of the time. And he exaggerates or lies about things outright and is, you know, just sort of given a pass on all of that,” Sen. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., who is 62, said in an interview just off the chamber floor.

“Mitch McConnell never lies," Cramer continued. "He may not talk for 30 seconds, but he’s never lied.”