By Iron Tiger
Mitch McConnell was giving an important speech. Right in the middle of it, he froze like a video game that had too much going on for its system to process. After about thirty or forty seconds, McConnell was escorted away from the microphones and cameras. This event triggered a conversation that probably should have been going on all along. Is there such a thing as too old to serve, and if so, what is that age?
During Senator Orin Hatch’s final campaign, many people observed some oddities that seemed age-related. One story told was that he tried to exit a stage by walking into a closet. Others tell of him shaking hands with people that weren’t there. I myself had an encounter where he introduced himself to me five times over a twenty-minute period as if he had completely forgotten doing so previously. The rumors were that the Party knew of his cognitive decline, but not wanting the Tea Party to win any more seats they hid it from the public. Nevertheless, Hatch won Re-election, and stories of his declining health continued. Hatch retired on January 3rd, 2019 after 42 years in office. Longer than I had been alive at the time. His successor, the highly divisive Mitt Romney, isn’t exactly a spring chicken, at 76, cognitive decline is less of a question of if than when.
On the Democrat side, Joe Biden has been showing signs of cognitive decline for years, a decline that the press has tried to hide. However, as he makes increasingly incoherent speeches, bursts more frequently into sudden fits of rage, tries to shake hands with people who aren’t actually there, trips and falls with regularity, and has to be escorted from stages, as he has no idea where he is or what he is doing, it’s getting harder and harder to hide his decline. Reports of his sleeping late and having to go to bed early have frequently leaked out as well. We’ve also heard reports of his having bathroom incidents while overseas, such as soiling himself at the Vatican. At 80 years old, the idea that he is running for re-election in this condition is obscene.
Meanwhile, Senator Diane Feinstein had stepped away from her position in the Senate to treat some health problems. When she came back, a reporter asked her about her absence, only for her to vehemently deny that she was ever gone. More recently, she was asked for her vote on a measure on the floor. She started to give a passionate speech about why she supported the measure but was stopped by her aid and told they only needed her vote. At 90, Feinstein handed off power of attorney to her daughter but refuses to give up her seat despite falling apart in real-time in front of the entire nation.
At the risk of angering some of you, I do also have to report something that happened with Trump over the weekend. Trump visited Iowa, but his supporters there took to Twitter to express concern that he seemed out of sorts, lacking energy, lacking the passion they have come to expect from him, and shockingly, he only stayed at the County Fair for a very short while, disappointing many of his biggest fans, and causing questions about his ability to do the job to rise up in hushed tones. Though if asked directly, they would adamantly insist he is more than capable. At 77, however, he isn’t far behind Biden. Whether he has enough gas in the tank left is a fair question, however. Trump has been known as a man with a voracious appetite for a good fight, yet he has declared he will not participate in debates. He claims it’s because he’s so far ahead in the polls that the primary is already over. Yet Primary season is only in its infancy, and while Trump does have a high floor, anything can happen in the polls, and his strategy also doesn’t consider ground game, and its impact on these forthcoming primary votes. It’s an odd choice, considering that he has a long history of absolutely crushing his opponents in debates to the thunderous cheers of his supporters. This decision is causing some to speculate that Trump is also getting too old for this. I, however, will leave that to the reader to determine for themselves.
It’s absolutely true that age doesn’t always mean declining health. Romney, for all his faults, seems fine, so far, but for how much longer? And more likely than not, Trump is also fine, and concerns about his health are overblown. But that there are so many elected officials in the 70s and 80s, and some even older does raise a question about whether or not there ought to be a maximum age for serving in our government. After all, the age of retirement in our country is 65. Shouldn’t our seniors be able to retire and enjoy their golden years? What is it about Congress that causes them to cling to their seats almost until their last breath?
Perhaps the incentive to retire is not as great as it once was. I have family members who have retired and barely receive enough to scrape by. If they had it to do over again, many of them would not retire, as the time they have is spent trying to stretch a single meager stipend till the end of the month. Many retirees who were not able to build a healthy nest egg don’t have enough to be able to enjoy their golden years. In fact, some are living with their kids, not to help the kids, but because it cuts their own expenses down to something more manageable. Could this be why our congressmen and women won’t retire? Given that many in Congress have personal wealth well into the millions, I doubt it.
I worry, however, that it may be that the parties feel that if a certain representative or senator were to retire, it would make that seat vulnerable to capture by the other party or an “undesirable” faction of their own party. Or perhaps the family of those members are afraid of losing the power of their family names? I wonder if keeping people in positions of power who have clear cognitive, or health concerns is truly in the best interests of that individual. And are we not engaging in elder abuse by insisting that they not retire, and stay in power because of our own fears of who might be next?
Whatever is at the heart of this problem, McConnel’s recent cognitive lock-up revealed that we are well past time in raising the question of what to do about this problem. Perhaps, since the Constitution has a minimum age of 35, a maximum age of 70 is an appropriate answer. Perhaps these leaders should just be pressured to retire. Or perhaps the voters need to consider the age and health of the candidates when they vote. Whatever the solution, it’s clear this is a conversation we should be having.