Tragic and disgusting. Tragic for poor Thad Cochran, who should be resting at home and enjoying his days as much as he can now. And disgusting on the part of the Republican leadership and his staff, who are dragging this frail old man around the Capitol for no better reason than that they don’t want to have to worry about a Bannon-fueled populist challenge in a Mississippi special election if Cochran were to resign. There’s no chance of his seat going blue, of course; they’re propping him up just to keep that seat filled with someone who’ll vote however Trump and McConnell need him to on key legislation like tax reform.
And so a 79-year-old has to go through the motions of chairing the Senate Appropriations Committee, one of the most powerful legislative bodies in the world, when according to Politico he can barely answer reporters’ questions coherently anymore.
Who knows? Given the grotesque precedent of Strom Thurmond, Cochran might still there be 20 years from now rubber-stamping Republican bills. He’s “only” 79.
The 79-year-old Cochran appeared frail and at times disoriented during a brief hallway interview on Wednesday. He was unable to answer whether he would remain chairman of the Appropriations Committee, and at one point, needed a staffer to remind him where the Senate chamber is located…
When another reporter asked whether leadership had pressured Cochran to return for a vote on the budget resolution — a key moment in the tax reform debate — Cochran smiled and responded, “It’s a beautiful day outside.”…
On one amendment, Cochran voted “yes” despite being told by an aide to vote “no.” The staffer tried to get the senator to switch his vote, but Cochran kept flashing the “thumbs up” sign, even walking over to the clerk tallying the vote and doing so. GOP floor staffers repeatedly told him the leadership wanted a “no” vote. Several more moments passed before Cochran realized he was voting the wrong way and then changed his vote.
Appalling. But Mississippi threw a terrible scare into McConnell and Republican leaders three years ago when Cochran barely repelled a primary challenge from tea-party firebrand Chris McDaniel. McDaniel actually narrowly outpolled Cochran in the first round of the primary; Cochran came back to win 51/49 in the runoff, seemingly thanks to crossover votes from black Democrats who wanted to keep the seat out of McDaniel’s hands. McDaniel is still in the hunt for a Senate seat, eyeing a primary challenge to Roger Wicker next year, but a special election for Cochran’s vacant seat would give him a second shot at winning — a stronger one than he’d have against the incumbent Wicker. And McDaniel has been outspoken in attacking McConnell. Mitch the Knife and the rest of the GOP establishment are desperate to keep him out of the chamber, expecting that he’d be a Roy-Moore-style headache for the leadership. If that means propping up Thad Cochran, that’s what it means.
But wait. The disgrace gets deeper. There was evidence that Thad Cochran was already suffering from “disorientation” three years ago when he defeated McDaniel. He was, allegedly, reluctant to run that race at all, preferring retirement. But because McDaniel seemed likely to replace him if he did, Beltway Republicans convinced him — to the extent that Cochran can be “convinced” now — to show some team spirit and run one more time. Here was the sorry spectacle of Cochran on the trail in 2014 as reported by the New York Times:
In remarkably short events on the trail — sometimes his speeches did not even last a few minutes — his campaign message seemed to consist of reminding people, over and over, who he was…
When Mr. Cochran arrived for an event at the Clarke County Courthouse in Quitman last week, a microphone had been set up outside for him to make remarks. Instead, the mayor of Quitman spoke on his behalf, telling the small crowd that Mr. Cochran preferred to chat one-on-one.
And a few days earlier, at a lunch stop here in Jackson, Mr. Cochran had greeted just a dozen or so people when he turned to an aide and whispered, “I’ve got to get back on the bus.” (Told he still needed to eat lunch with supporters, Mr. Cochran gamely obliged, continuing to greet well-wishers as he nibbled at macaroni salad.)
Although Cochran “tried to hush whispers that he was not quite as sharp as he had once been,” as the Times put it, concerns about his “mental clarity” were out in the open in the media. Here was a headline in the Hill when a triumphant Cochran returned to the Capitol after defeating McDaniel:
Three years later, if you believe Politico, he can’t even find the Senate chamber without help. He’s being exploited for electoral reasons. As a matter of simple decency it’s time to let him go home to his family.
Here’s an interview he gave in the summer of 2014, around the time of the runoff, when he was asked how he felt about Dave Brat knocking off House majority leader Eric Cantor, one of the most shocking and momentous congressional upsets in modern political history and, in hindsight, the opening act in Trump’s populist ascendancy to the presidency. Cochran’s reaction: I don’t know what you’re talking about.