Is Mitch McConnell Still Fit to Lead?

It's time for transparency on the Republican Leader's health.

In the aftermath of a second “freezing” incident, there’s a growing call for Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell to step down.

POLITICO senior media writer Jack Shafer steps outside his assigned beat to ask, “Why Is Nobody Doing Anything About Mitch McConnell?

To be clear, neither of these shutdowns were like the ones we all experience — the loss of a conversation thread, the failure to find the right word or term of art to express an idea. In both cases, McConnell simply went offline, requiring rescue by his supporters. His aides told the press Wednesday that the senator had “felt momentarily lightheaded,” mirroring Mitch’s own postmortem to his July fade-to-black when he returned to face reporters and said, “I’m fine.”

If McConnell were a bus driver or broadcaster or teacher engaged in any other occupation that, like serving as a legislative leader, demands real-time responses, he would have been benched pending a medical examination. Instead, Mitch’s verbal stoppage has been met with paralysis by the political order, which seems incapacitated by his condition. The president and others have voiced their “concerns” for McConnell’s episodes, offering verbal placeholders for the stark questions that demand answers. Instead, apart from the barest of acknowledgments that McConnell will consult a physician, and the prospect of an internal Senate GOP discussion, it’s the Washington establishment that is acting lightheaded and professing that things are fine.


McConnell isn’t even the leading example of an aged legislator whose diminished capacity is ignored by the Senate so he can maintain his plush seat of power. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) appears to be in rapid physical and mental decline — and her supporters have, at least initially, concealed the severity of her health battles. In July, the 90-year-old was so out of it she had to be coached by Democratic colleague Sen. Patty Murray to say “aye” in a committee meeting. Feinstein’s condition has received more attention than McConnell’s, with a half-dozen members of the House calling on her to resign. But for senators, the Feinstein story is like a reel from the black comedy The Death of Stalin, as the senators remain as timid as the Politburo members gathered around Joseph Stalin’s deathbed who refused to replace him until he was absolutely cold.


What the Senate needs is not a legal measure like the 25th Amendment, which governs the replacement of a mentally or physically faltering president. Nor would age limits for senators, which would reduce the body’s gerontological problem, automatically remedy the current state. People under 65 can have debilitating strokes or other mentally sapping medical problems. Neither would a medical board empowered to certify the mental and physical health of legislators do the trick. Some of us barely want to heed our doctors’ advice. Who wants to assign them to review who can serve in Congress?

What the Senate needs is some spine. Instead of playing the supportive colleague for other legislators who struggle to do their jobs or otherwise turn their backs on the infirm and doddering, senators need to use their powers of persuasion, their parliamentary skills at replacing leadership and old-fashioned jawboning to persuade the mentally muddled or seriously ill to remove themselves from the pinnacles of power and even, if necessary, to resign.

Shafer’s colleague, Congressional bureau chief Burgess Everett, reports “GOP senators weigh ‘special’ meeting on their leadership after McConnell’s freeze.”

A handful of GOP senators are weighing whether to force a fraught internal debate about their leadership’s future after Mitch McConnell’s second public freeze-up in a month.

Some rank-and-file Republicans have discussed the possibility of a broader conversation once senators return to Washington next week, according to a person directly involved in the conversations who confirmed them on condition of anonymity. Party leadership is not currently involved in those discussions, and nothing has been decided yet, this person added.

It takes just five Republican senators to force a special conference meeting, which is the most direct way to have a specific discussion about the minority leader after his public pause on Wednesday revived questions about his condition. But the Senate GOP also holds private lunches two or three times a week, giving members another forum for hashing out the direction of the party’s leadership — one that could forestall the need for a special confab.

And McConnell’s health is a touchy subject: The 81-year-old, the longest-serving party leader in Senate history, doesn’t like to discuss it. Even detractors of the Kentucky Republican’s leadership style are sensitive to the health issues he faces after falling in March and suffering a concussion.

Even so, the question now facing the GOP is whether McConnell’s health hastens a transition atop the conference leadership that has to happen eventually. McConnell squashed his first-ever challenge last fall from Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) on a 37-10 vote.

If a special conference meeting doesn’t happen, the issue could be punted until after the 2024 election. However, a special meeting would undoubtedly draw more media attention that would amplify the risk of specifically broaching the touchy topic of McConnell’s leadership. And his own support may be relatively unchanged even after the two summer pauses.

“If a handful goes down that path, it will be a rerun of the last time,” said a GOP senator who was granted anonymity to discuss the issue, referring to Scott’s failed challenge.


McConnell’s sway in the party can’t be understated: In addition to his role as party leader, the Senate Leadership Fund super PAC is closely aligned with him and a huge player in Senate races. Thune, Barrasso and Cornyn are all sticking with him publicly and privately.

And September will be a great test of McConnell’s grip on his conference: The government is set to shut down in a month without action, the House and Senate don’t see eye-to-eye on spending levels and the Biden administration wants billions of dollars more for hurricane relief, Ukraine aid and border security.

Meanwhile, HuffPo’s Kelby Vera reports, “Nikki Haley Calls Senate A ‘Privileged Nursing Home’ After McConnell Freezes.”

Former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley urged aging lawmakers to accept “when it’s time to go” after Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) froze up during a press conference in Kentucky on Wednesday.

Haley, who is running in the 2024 Republican presidential primary, called McConnell’s situation “sad” while appearing on Fox News’ “The Story” on Thursday, where she described the Senate as the “most privileged nursing home in the country.”

“No one should feel good about seeing that any more than we should feel good about seeing Dianne Feinstein, any more than we should feel good about a lot of what’s happening or seeing Joe Biden’s decline,” Haley said, targeting the senior Democratic senator from California and the Democratic president.


“What I will say is, right now, the Senate is the most privileged nursing home in the country,” Haley went on. “I mean, Mitch McConnell has done some great things, and he deserves credit. But you have to know when to leave.”

She then repeated her call for term limits and mental competency tests for elected officials over the age of 75.

“I wouldn’t care if they did them over the age of 50,” added Haley, who is 51. “But these people are making decisions on our national security. They’re making decisions on our economy, on the border.”

“We need to know they’re at the top of their game,” she continued. “You can’t say that right now, looking at Congress.”

Haley suggested it was time for “new faces, new voices [and] younger generations” to work in government before saying, “We need to have everybody else understand when it’s time to go.”

A WaPo report headlined “McConnell tries to tamp down health concerns after second incident” notes a handful of low-level Republicans out in the hustings calling for him to step down as well as support from a handful of Senate colleagues before getting to this:

By midday Thursday, McConnell’s office took a letter from the attending physician of Congress and sent it to all Republican senators, as well as releasing it to the news media.

“I have consulted with Leader McConnell and conferred with his neurology team,” Brian P. Monahan, the attending physician, said in the statement. “After evaluating yesterday’s incident, I have informed Leader McConnell that he is medically clear to continue with his schedule as planned.”

Monahan added: “Occasional lightheadedness is not uncommon in concussion recovery and can also be expected as a result of dehydration.” He referred to an incident in early March in which McConnell fell and suffered a concussion and broken rib during a private dinner at a Washington hotel. He was absent from the Senate for nearly six weeks as he recovered from his injuries. He returned to work in April.

Monahan’s letter did not address the underlying cause of what has been a more than four-year struggle for McConnell with falling. Some of his falls were serious and resulted in injuries, while others were minor stumbles tied to balance issues.

McConnell, known for treating his health like a state secret, has never explained a situation in October 2020 when he appeared in the Capitol with bruised hands and a swollen lip. A few months after that, McConnell backed a Kentucky law that Republicans pushed through the legislature amending the process for appointing a new U.S. senator, guaranteeing that the governor — currently Democrat Andy Beshear — had to choose someone from the same party if a vacancy arises.

Three neurologists consulted by The Post said it is impossible to diagnose a patient through brief video clips, but the two similar episodes hinted at a few possible explanations, including localized seizures or a temporary drop in blood pressure. They said a complete medical examination and testing, including brain scans, would be needed to diagnose the problem.

“If a person came to my office and showed me a video like this, where they were speaking normally and then had a speech arrest that lasted for 15 to 20 seconds, up to a couple of minutes, I would be strongly suspicious of a seizure,” said Dane Michael Chetkovich, chairman of neurology at Vanderbilt University Medical Center. He noted that McConnell’s eyes seemed forced to the right during the episode, which could be a sign of a seizure on the left side of his brain, where language functions are rooted.

W. Taylor Kimberly, chief of the division of neurocritical care at Massachusetts General Hospital, said that a heart specialist should also evaluate McConnell, because a drop in blood pressure that causes a near-fainting episode might also explain the two spells.

All cautioned that a diagnosis might be difficult, even with follow-up testing. McConnell’s polio in childhood could contribute to his difficulty walking and increase his risk for falls, though people’s gaits also can deteriorate with advanced age.

It then moves on to Feinstein who, while occupying very important committee assignments, isn’t the leader of her party’s faction in the Senate.

Haley’s calls for routine cognitive testing for older Members, while certainly self-serving, have merit as do Shafer’s arguments. That elected officials with enormous power are afforded more leeway than hourly workers like bus drivers is both understandable and problematic.

At the very least, it would seem that McConnell owes us transparency on his health problems. An independent physician or team of physicians ought to examine him and release a summer of his condition. Are these episodes a result of the fall and something that will go away soon? Are they a residual of his childhood polio? How much do the underlying conditions impact his ability to do the job day to day?

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Stormy Dragon says:

    Treating Haley’s call as good faith is ridiculous. What she actually wants is to eliminate some Democrat senators so the Senate GOP can obstruct their replacements and shut down all committee work until the election.

    Which, as usual, is the real answer to any “why isn’t anything being done about X?” question: because Republicans are making sure nothing can be done about it.

  2. Sleeping Dog says:

    Would we be asking this question if McConnell were 51 yo and the issue was an epileptic seizure. The thing about being a legislator, even in the leadership, it is vanishingly rare that a senator or rep needs to be at the top of his/her game for any crisis. In congress everything is done by formal committee or informal committees.

    This in large part is about R back benchers and MAGAts looking to displace someone they oppose and giving them another argument to attack Biden on age.

    And yes, if Biden had a similar spell, he should resign. The presidency is different.

  3. Bob@Youngstown says:

    Re Haley’s comment.
    The leaders of the caucus are selected by the members, they are free to select leaders that, in their opinion, are the most EFFECTIVE, regardless of mental acuity, disease, medical conditions.
    What I think that Haley is really talking about is constraining the American voter to be able to elect their representatives.
    If that is a worthwhile discussion, the I’d suggest that other considerations be included such as recognized personality disorders, morales, logic ability …….. oh, and publishing tax returns and sources of income and gratuities.

  4. Jen says:

    Haley’s call had two purposes–one, the push to eliminate some Democrats and stymie the committee process, and two, to get a dig in at Joe Biden so she looks like a legitimate candidate for president. In other words, highly political.

    All of this mystery surrounding McConnell is a bit weird. It leads me to think there’s much more that he’s hiding.

    I would be strongly suspicious of a seizure,” said Dane Michael Chetkovich

    This is exactly my thought. My sister had several of what were then known as “petit mal seizures” (they are now called “absence seizures“) when she was very young. No cause was ever discovered, but she did subsequently have two grand mal seizures (again, no cause). That “offline for a bit” look is one I’ve seen firsthand.

  5. charontwo says:

    None of the proposed possible diagnoses above address the other symptoms: frequent falls, visible weight loss, etc.

  6. Kathy says:

    If all that’s wrong with Mitch is he goes offline for a minute every now and then, I see no obvious unfitness. A bus drive will crash and kill people if they were to suffer the same symptoms, a Senate leader won’t. there’s no need for split second decisions and actions, nor for constant awareness.

    If there are nay other problems, let’s see them.

  7. Jen says:

    @charontwo: It’s highly likely that there’s more than one thing going on. Weight loss and falling are both fairly common in people who are aging.

    Once again returning to comparison of pets–our last dog was showing signs of weakness in hind quarters and disorientation. Our vet said possible degenerative myelopathy, but the dog daycare person, who had dealt with a number of DM dogs, said she didn’t think so. We took him to a specialist, and it turned out that the weak hindquarters was due to two ruptured discs and the disorientation was early signs of dog dementia. Trying to attribute all symptoms to a single disease from afar is tricky at best.

  8. Jay L Gischer says:

    @Kathy: I agree. The Republican Senate Caucus knows far better than we do whether there’s a big problem or not, and they would have the biggest share of the problem if there were.

  9. steve says:

    Assuming he has had the big neuro and cardiovascular workups and they didnt find anything the focus should probably be on whether these are increasing and what he is like between episodes.


  10. James Joyner says:

    @Stormy Dragon: I labeled them “self-serving” but that doesn’t make them wrong. Honestly, I think her motive is pretty clear: contrast her youth to that of Trump and Biden. After all, she’s going beyond calling for cognitive testing but also calling for a new generation of leadership.

  11. Kathy says:

    There’s a much better case that Mitch is morally unfit for his office, but for the wingnuts that’s a feature they’d pay with their blood for.

  12. gVOR10 says:

    @Stormy Dragon: Thank you for that. Specifically, the GOPs have made it known that if Feinstein steps down they won’t allow a replacement on the Judiciary committee, deadlocking it with even numbers of Rs and Ds. Ds have no choice but to literally prop up Feinstein if Biden is to appoint any more judges. Comity seems to be a one way street. Anybody else remember the last scene of El Cid?

  13. gVOR10 says:

    Is Mitch McConnell Still Fit to Lead?

    Was he ever? I mean yeah, he was healthy and smart, but shouldn’t ethics/morality be taken into account in selecting leaders? Shouldn’t some sense of public service be required?

    And I’ve seen no one address the real issue. He maintained his leadership the old fashioned way, by handing out piles of money. Who gets control of his Senate Leadership Fund PAC?

  14. DK says:


    Anybody else remember the last scene of El Cid?

    I do. It worked, they defeated the Moors.

    And I will second the Feinstein thing. It looked to me like she was not going to return to D.C. from California — until it became clear Republicans would not allow a replacement to be seated on Judiciary. Thus blocking any future judge nominees.

    Hence why Ro Khanna and other lefties eased up a bit on calling on her to resign.

  15. Kurtz says:


    Thank you for that. Specifically, the GOPs have made it known that if Feinstein steps down they won’t allow a replacement on the Judiciary committee, deadlocking it with even numbers of Rs and Ds. Ds have no choice but to literally prop up Feinstein if Biden is to appoint any more judges.

    I had that thought when I was reading the OP. That should have been mentioned in the Shafer piece.

  16. Gustopher says:

    Leading the Republicans in the Senate is mostly a matter of filibustering everything and voting no. There’s no leading. He’s fine for the job.

    A dead guy in a t-shirt that says “filibuster” would be fine.

  17. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @gVOR10: @Gustopher: Yes, it would appear that some of us remember the final scene.

  18. DrDaveT says:

    When someone solves the problem of how to take away the car keys from an incompetent senior, we can then perhaps move on to the thornier problem of taking away the “governing the nation” keys.

  19. @DrDaveT: This is why I tend to favor an upper age limit for being in office, even with the complexities abs downsides it could have.

  20. de stijl says:

    I have a friend who had a fairly substantial stroke in his late 30s.

    The part of his brain that allows for us to speak our thoughts aloud was damaged. He thinks big brain thoughts and struggles to say them aloud because of the type and location of his stroke.

    His intellect was essentially untouched, but his ability to say aloud what he was thinking basically got cut. Imagine how frustrating that must be. He basically had to relearn how to speak, and to this day, is not fluid. His tendency is short, declarative sentences.

    He can convey his thoughts inelegantly spoken aloud. His is quite smart and really quite good in his field. He runs a commercial medical research lab. Before he was an administrator he was a genius at electronmicrosposy.

    He runs/administrates a lab via written communication.

    One day we were having lunch and the waitress made the conclusion he was retarded because he struggled in making his order in English she could not understand. I understood it. I got uncomfortably angry at her / at the situation. Mark is a markedly smarter than you it’s just he lacks the ability to speak easily, fluently and understandably.