Sunset for McConnell—and Joe Biden

Sunset for McConnell—and Joe Biden

Old age is driving a period of generational transformation in American politics.

Credit: JIM WATSON/AFP via Getty Images

Mitch McConnell is not willingly giving up power after 17 years. His decision to step down as the Republican leader in the Senate has been forced on him by two opponents he can’t beat. One is Donald Trump. The other is senescence. 

Joe Biden, born the same year as McConnell, faces the same foes. Both men are at the end of their era.

They ascended together out of the ruins of the George W. Bush presidency. 

When Republicans lost the Senate after the 2006 midterms, McConnell became their new leader in the minority. And when Republicans lost the White House after 2008, Biden became vice president. 

Biden and McConnell defined a twilight period in American politics, bridging the fall of neoconservatism and the rise of right-wing populism. Both finally staked their political lives on holding back the future that Trump represents.

Ironically, McConnell owes the zenith of his career to the failure of the only alternative to Trump that the post-Bush epoch has produced. If Barack Obama had succeeded in personifying hope and bringing lasting popular change to a war-weary and economically divided America, Republicans might not have taken back the Senate after 2014. But his failure cleared the way for McConnell to become the chamber’s majority leader in 2015. 

Of course, Obama’s inadequacy also led to Donald Trump succeeding him as president. Trump was a break with Bush and Obama alike, but the ghosts of the immediate past continued to haunt his administration. He had to contend with McConnell as Senate leader (and Paul Ryan as speaker of the House), and in 2020 he had to fight Biden for the White House. 

McConnell was no friend to Trump or his agenda, and while they had a shared interest in holding onto the Senate in 2018, the divisions between them made success all the more elusive. The GOP’s old guard, and the president’s sometimes surprising deference to them, limited what Trump could achieve in office. Once Ryan and McConnell lost their majorities, Trump’s opponents in the other party had the means to impeach him. 

Even so, the future could not be stopped. Trump would have won the 2020 election if not for Covid and the economic reversal it brought about—no president wins re-election in a recession. (Not since Calvin Coolidge, anyway; and if he’s an exception, the fate of his successor, Herbert Hoover, more than proves the rule.) 

Many a defeated Senate majority leader still enjoys power within his party as a minority leader. An ex-president, on the other hand, has no institutional leverage. Yet Trump, not McConnell, has continued to set the GOP’s direction. McConnell isn’t simply old, he’s outmoded—and if he were 20 years younger, he would still be yesterday’s Republican. 

How long could he possibly hold onto his Senate leadership role as the legislative party catches up with the spirit of Trump? Congress, with its hundreds of members, changes more slowly than the executive branch. There may be only 100 senators, but their six-year terms combined with the extraordinary advantages of incumbency can make the chamber a mausoleum of obsolete politicians. Joe Biden himself was just such a mummy until Obama picked the long-serving Delaware senator to balance his own youth with experience—and more to reassure older voters that the new Obama-led party was not too radical a departure from the Irish-American Democrats of Camelot nostalgia.

A good politician wins elections. A great movement wins by changing the terms of politics, which can make the ballot box an afterthought. Mitt Romney might or might not have risked defeat if he were running for re-election—but there was no point in his running when the party belongs to Trump. McConnell recognized the same thing. His term in office runs until 2027, but he doesn’t lead the party even while he holds the title of leader. He’s been defeated: not in a Senate race or leadership contest, but in the battle for a future.

Yet if Trump had not overcome him, time itself would have. At 82, McConnell is no longer fully fit for duty. Here too, McConnell is twinned with Biden, who is only months behind him. If an 82-year-old is unfit to continue as Senate leader, how fit can anyone imagine Biden will be to serve as president, when he will also be 82 the day he’s sworn in for a second term? McConnell at 83 or 84 would not be a better leader; will President Biden get better? He will leave office at 86 if he wins re-election. 

But Biden, unlike McConnell, is not stepping aside. He can hardly do so—if McConnell has no heir in the GOP of today and tomorrow, Biden has in Vice President Harris an heir apparent with no viable future of her own. The Obama-Biden ticket conceded defeat from the day the alliance was struck—not defeat at the ballot box, but defeat afterward, looking ahead. Biden was never going to be the successor to a truly hopeful and change-bringing new leader. He could only be a retrenchment; a step back. The Biden-Harris ticket is a parody, with a backward-facing top and a hopeless undercard. Biden was what the Democrats needed to make Obama viable and to take on Trump in the radically unstable conditions of 2020. But he’s not more future-oriented than Mitch McConnell.

The only thing the McConnell-led GOP had going for it was its opposition to Obama. And the only raison d’etre Biden has is to stop Trump. These are photographic negatives as leaders. They occupy the space that real leaders occupy, yet their purpose is not to lead but to arrest. In some circumstances, that can be a modestly conservative function, but following the exposure of the present American elite’s comprehensive strategic and moral bankruptcy—amid the Iraq War, the Great Recession, and the cultural revolution that has swept over the nation since then—it’s more obvious than ever that great change is necessary to conservation. That change begins at the top with the removal of leaders like McConnell and Biden.

The post Sunset for McConnell—and Joe Biden appeared first on The American Conservative.

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