Politics / February 14, 2024

Republicans Aren’t Going to Stop Talking About Biden’s Age

Congress is planning additional hearings about the president’s fitness to hold office. It’s a convenient distraction from a stagnant system serving up the same two candidates again.

Chris Lehmann
Speaker of the House Mike Johnson and others applaud President Joe Biden following his remarks during the annual National Prayer Breakfast in Statuary Hall at the US Capitol in February 2024. (Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images)

Following the strict axiom that escalates camera-ready GOP congressional investigations in inverse proportion to actual legislating, Republican leaders are preparing to mount an all-out inquiry into the life cycle. That is to say, in the wake of the concerns about President Joe Biden’s memory and mental acuity raised by special prosecutor Robert Hur in his report on the handling of classified papers relating to Biden’s term in office as vice president, House Republicans are gearing up to hold a series of hearings about the president’s age, per a new report from Axios’s Mike Allen.

Of course, the short answer to this solemn mobilization of Congress’s resources, time, and investigative bandwidth is as follows: “81.” There’s certainly no secret about Biden’s status as a quite elder statesman, nor about persistent and growing anxiety about the president’s capacities among the electorate. But in the great tradition of the rolling Hunter Biden inquisition and the comically failed impeachment vote against Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, the plan is a brazenly cynical effort to (in the argot of another grandiosely empowered standing House committee) “weaponize” Biden’s greatest political liability into a headline-driving campaign offensive. Plans are afoot to get Hur to hand over transcripts of his Biden interview, and to give his own direct testimony about the president’s grasp of things during the depositions. But really, such machinations are little more than window dressing, intended to keep the Biden’s-too-old narrative pulsating through the discourse. “Sources close to House GOP leaders are blunt that they don’t think it even matters what they find,” Allen writes. “These sources think that any fight will make the White House look bad—and keep a huge Biden vulnerability in the headlines.”

Just as the founders intended, in other words. The new probe into Biden’s octogenarianism stands out in especially stark relief as House Speaker Mike Johnson stands athwart the Senate’s brief lurch into legislating mode, in a 70-29 vote to approve a $95 billion foreign aid package directing $60 billion to the Ukrainian war effort. “Any so-called national security supplemental legislation must recognize that national security begins at our own border,” Johnson sententiously announced in a statement ahead of the vote. “In the absence of having received any single border policy change from the Senate, the House will have to continue to work its own will on these important matters.” The always-ludicrous image of Johnson’s House as Capitol Hill’s adult first-responders, poised amid their heroic labors to once more rescue a flawed Senate initiative, became, against all odds, still more bathetic in the wake of the Mayorkas impeachment fiasco. That was still another content-free House proceeding ginned up solely to create Trump campaign talking points; yet Johnson, whose principal job is to secure reliable vote counts prior to the votes he schedules, utterly botched the assignment. (Duly fixated on browbeating his narrow majority into meaningless displays of culture-war pique, Johnson scheduled a second Mayorkas vote, which squeaked through on a one-vote margin on Tuesday evening.)

The planned House proceedings will inevitably trigger a fresh round of counter-accusations from Democrats about Trump’s own advanced age (77) and his decidedly woolly grasp of consensual reality and the basics of public life. This follows an equally predictable (and procedurally justified) offensive among Democrats that called out Hur for overstepping the bounds of his inquiry in offering a decidedly non-expert assessment of Biden’s own mental acuity.

But amid all these trench-warfare salvos determined to establish which candidate is, in fact, most senility-prone, a much larger and more distressing point is getting lost: The institutional bulwarks of republican self-government are in an advanced state of senescence, and the country’s leadership caste in all spheres remains deeply invested in denying or evading this basic truth. The crisis in our democracy, in other words, has far less to do with the signs of advancing personal dotage than with conditions of moral and intellectual collapse that are sending continual code-red alarms through the system.

The sweeping overinvestment in the mental wherewithal of Trump and Biden alike counts for little against an electoral system running on such complete autopilot that it’s produced a full replication of the 2020 presidential contest long before most primary voters had an opportunity to cast a ballot. The same state of structural inertia has created the brain-dead policy consensuses behind a long host of governing debacles, from bipartisan cheerleading for the brutal, genocidal Gaza war to the system-wide capitulation before false and demagogic immigration alarmism to the failure even to consider reforms to undo the damage to our democracy wrought by a corrupt and billionaire-captured Supreme Court.

This is why it’s infinitely less productive for our news cycles and pundit inquisitors to focus on the prodigious body of gaffes, miscues, and senior moments of the system’s designated leaders than on the parlous condition of the system itself. There’s a reason, after all, that little more than a decade after the Soviet Politburo convulsed with lovingly compiled prognoses about the hale, world-conquering energy of rapidly expiring Party leaders Yuri Andropov and Konstantin Chernenko, the regime collapsed of its own dead weight and was promptly overthrown. So the real watchword for the House leadership caste, and the growing corps of age monitors now burgeoning through the punditsphere, should simply be this: Gerontologists, heal thyselves.

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Chris Lehmann

Chris Lehmann is the D.C. Bureau chief for The Nation and a contributing editor at The Baffler. He was formerly editor of The Baffler and The New Republic, and is the author, most recently, of The Money Cult: Capitalism, Christianity, and the Unmaking of the American Dream (Melville House, 2016).

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