Voices: McConnell’s health? Biden’s age? That’s just the start of it

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and President Joe Biden have Washington’s most simultaneously torrid relationships. The last time Mr Biden worked in the White House as Vice President, Mr McConnell, then Senate Majority Leader, blocked Merrick Garland from even having a confirmation hearing for an open Supreme Court seat.

At the same time, the two men, only nine months apart, have worked together to avoid government shutdowns and passed a flurry of legislation last Congress on guns, infrastructure and manufacturing semiconductors.

More than anything, the underlying rationale for their success has been that nobody else could do what they could do: Mr Biden won the Democratic nomination because primary voters, particularly African Americans, believed only he could defeat Donald Trump. And despite conservative gripes about him, even Mr McConnell’s biggest critics conceded that only he could have secure three conservative Supreme Court justice’s confirmation, which led to the end of Roe v Wade.

But now, both men find themselves facing the same questions from both the public and their parties: whether they are too old and whether they can do the job anymore.

On Thursday, CNN released a poll showing Mr Biden within the margins of error against Mr Trump and Florida Gov Ron DeSantis as he holds a dismal 39 per cent approval rating. Morever, when pollsters asked Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents what their main concern was, respondents didn’t mince words: 49 per cent said he was too old or they wanted someone younger while 7 per cent said “His mental competence/Sharpness/Senility.”

Mr Biden entered the US Senate as the youngest legislator in recent history in 1972, but now at 80 years old, he is the oldest man to ever occupy the White House. Save for four years after Mr Trump’s victory, Mr Biden has spent almost his entire adult life in the public eye. In the Obama administration, his boss Barack Obama dispatched him to Capitol Hill to deal with Republicans - such as Mr McConnell - given his 36 years as a Senator.

But now, that experience is the main reason voters are mostly dissatisfied with him. Indeed, once he won the Democratic nomination, many voters who would have preferred someone more progressive or younger set aside their concerns seeing Mr Biden’s candidacy as a one-time thing meant to thwart Mr Trump, whom they saw as an existential threat to democracy.

Now, many are none too pleased about the idea of casting their ballot for him. While the poll is for an election more than a year away and much could change, it does symbolize dissatisfaction and shows some would want a fresh face.

Conversely, Mr McConnell has begun to face questions about his age and health. They first began earlier this year when he fell and suffered a concussion at the Waldorf Astoria hotel in Washington (which coincidentally, used to be the Trump International Hotel).

Then, in July, during his weekly press conference, he froze up and was unable to answer questions. Then, once again, last month in Kentucky during the August recess, he again was unable to speak. Mr McConnell’s sudden freeze made people begin to wonder whether Mr McConnell, who has led the Senate GOP since 2007 and is the longest-serving Senate party leader in history, can actually continue to do the job as effectively as he has in the past.

But incidentally, the anxieties about both men’s age comes just at a moment when their experience might be what Washington needs. The government is just weeks away from running out of money and House Republicans are hoping to extract cuts that even Senate Republicans will likely find unsavory.

Under typical circumstances, Mr Biden and Mr McConnell would be able to negotiate a deal to avoid a shutdown. But if Mr McConnell should find himself indisposed, the president could lose his chief Republican negotiating partner. Meanwhile any potential successor to Mr McConnell would likely be more beholden to right-wing forces that Mr McConnell has hoped to quell.

Similarly, should Mr Trump be the nominee but Mr Biden ultimately not be able to run, Democrats do not have a clear designated replacement for him, given Vice President Kamala Harris’s low approval ratings. Many would-run candidates have said they would not challenge the incumbent president, so it seems apparent the country is heading for another Trump versus Biden match-up.

Americans’ anxiety about a lack of new blood might soon devolve into hand-wringing about a need for institutional experience.