Once Again, the GOP Supplies America With Our Oldest Senator

At 90 years old, Iowa's Chuck Grassley will run for an eighth term in 2022. Dear God.

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Strom Thurmond (left), the oldest member of the Senate, in a photo op with Peter Fitzgerald, the youngest Senator, taken between 1999 and 2001. Image credit: Office of Senator Peter Fitzgerald/Wikimedia Commons

Senator Chuck Grassley (R-IA) announced via Twitter (September 24, 2021) that he is indeed running for re-election in 2022. He will be 90 and potentially in office until he is 96. All a guy needs is a good staff, right?

I can’t even, as they say on the interwebz. Grassley looks pretty good for his age, but things can change fast when you are much younger than 90. And why be on the national stage so everyone can watch your decline and comment on it?

You would think that all those old photos and film footage of South Carolina Senator Strom Thurmond—who retired from the Senate in 2002 and died in 2003—practically taped to his chair and unable to speak coherently—would deter anyone from staying at the party too long. In 1996, six years before Thurmond vacated his job, a Newsweek reporter narrated the Senator’s growing senility, describing the Senate as “Thurmond's nursing home.”

As Westen Kosova wrote,

Thanks to the perks of office, the only thing he must do alone is dress in the morning and go to bed at night. In 1986 Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole quietly made sure Thurmond would be guaranteed a car and driver for as long as he remains in office. (Dole held up funding for the Armed Services Committee until Democrats agreed.) Once in the Capitol, aides escort him through the workday. "If he went home to South Carolina, he wouldn't have all this," said one Senate aide.

But Thurmond also didn’t work much, a particular problem on the powerful Armed Services Committee where, fellow Republicans complained, he often just failed to show up to chair the meetings. So for years these colleagues, “unnerved by Thurmond's nearly complete dependence on his staff,” begged their Leader, Bob Dole, to take Thurmond out but to no avail.

So the charade that Thurmond was still doing the work of a Senator continued for another six years. But in 1996, he was already gone, fighting with airline attendants over imagined slights, forgetting where he was, and having pretty staffers positioned to keep his eyes going in the right direction during photo ops. “During meetings,” Kosova reported at the time, “when the discussion veers from his prepared text, [Thurmond] sometimes becomes disoriented. At times he inadvertently reads the stage directions his staff scribbles in the margins, reminding him to pause or look up. Senate colleagues have also negotiated hallway deals with Thurmond only to have his staff veto the agreements. `His staff treats him like he's senile,’ says one senior Senate aide.”

The GOP has a history of this, of course: we now know that a significant number of people, including family members, knew that Ronald Reagan was sliding into dementia as early as 1984. But they thought he should be president anyway!

Although some have speculated that Grassley already suffers from intellectual decline, no evidence beyond the occasional odd tweet and strange outburst supports that theory.

But the question is: what is the GOP afraid of in Iowa—and why not give a younger Republican who could begin to establish a track record and seniority a chance? Iowans will certainly elect another Republican. Trump won the state in 2020 by nine points, Senator Joni Ernst, the pig castration lady, won her race by over 6, and Republicans shored up their majority in the State Assembly by six seats. Polling on Grassley against his likely opponent, former Democratic Representative Abby Finkenauer, currently has him winning in a cakewalk.

So why wouldn’t another Republican command a smaller, but winning, margin?

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The conventional wisdom says: the GOP is already defending five Senate seats, and doesn’t want to defend a sixth one. Fair enough. But looking at the 2020 data, it’s hard to imagine that much of a defense would have to be mounted in Iowa.

So if you ask me, this is about the committees Grassley chairs, and would chair, in a potential Republican Senate in 2022: Appropriations; Commerce, Science, and Transportation; and Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions—all crucial to stopping Joe Biden’s economic plan. Of anyone else in the party, it is Grassley who has the experience and the reputation to do that without looking as though he is partisan or obstructionist (which, increasingly, he has been—his iron grip on the Kavanaugh hearings was impressive, given how close that nomination came to running off the rails.)

But what we also know from the Thurmond and example (or, dare I say, the Former Guy, whose staff ran the place, however ineptly, with occasional interference from the person formerly known as the President) is this: should Grassley not have the intellectual wherewithal to perform the role of a Senator for the next eight years, it wouldn’t matter, as long as his staff could prop him up in his chair and provide a plausible script in the hours he needed to be there.

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Short Takes:

  • Only a small number of right-wing extremists commit violent acts, but how many Americans support political violence? As it turns out, a lot. The University of Chicago Project on Security and Threats reports that 21 million Americans “agree with the statement that `the 2020 election was stolen from Donald Trump and Joe Biden is an illegitimate president.’ Of those, 21 million also agree that `use of force is justified to restore Donald J. Trump to the presidency.’” As Robert A. Pape, a member of the research team, writes at Opinion Today, “At least 7 million” of those supporting the violent overthrow if the state (which is, by the way, against the law) “already own a gun, and at least 3 million have served in the U.S. military, and so have lethal skills. Of those 21 million, 6 million said they supported right-wing militias and extremist groups, and 1 million said they are themselves or personally know a member of such a group, including the Oath Keepers and Proud Boys.” (September 23, 2021)

  • Na-na-na-na-boo-boo. In case you haven’t heard, the clown car Arizona audit of the 2020 election is complete. It reveals (drumroll): that Donald Trump lost by even more votes—83, I think—than we previously thought. But don’t think this is over, since rightwing media has been flooding the zone with articles about how early results pointed to a Trump win in that state, so the conspiratorial thinkers who now run the GOP will probably point to this as more evidence of the deep state’s unbelievable reach. (John Fifeld and Robert Anglen, The Arizona Republic, September 23, 2020)

  • I’ve looked at illiberalism from both sides now…and it’s life’s illusions I recall. At the Washington Post, Robert Kagan predicts a constitutional crisis in 2024 without fully acknowledging that the “Brooks Brothers revolution” and the extremist rhetoric he and other Bushies promoted in the run-up to the War on Terror has anything to do with where we are today. Kagan presents a plausible scenario in which Trump runs in 2024, the political atmosphere and local election laws fully transformed by the conspiracy theories and election tampering the GOP promoted in the aftermath of 2020. In Kagan’s political apocalypse, the nation dissolves in a swirl of protests, claims, and counter-claims. But he also both-sides it, as Republicans tend to nowadays. The notion that the political “cults of personality” Kagan deplores could organize themselves around any candidate—for example, Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, or Alexandria Ocasio Cortes—is pure, ideologically-driven bullshit. The Republican Party invented this shit in 2000: the problem cannot be solved unless the GOP admits to how they have warped the electoral process with their lies—and they won’t do that, because it will splinter whatever party they have left. (September 23, 2024)