The Gerontocracy of Democratic Party Leadership

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Joe Biden won’t be that much older than other prominent Democratic leaders in 2020. Photo: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

When Vice-President Joe Biden told reporters he was thinking about running for president in 2020, nobody laughed out loud. Yeah, he was probably joking, and perhaps even taking a retroactive jocular jab at the media frenzy in 2015 over persistent if undocumented rumors he was going to go for the gold in 2016.

The obvious obstacle to a Biden run in 2020 is, of course, the veep’s age. He just turned 74 a couple of weeks ago, and would be 78 on Inauguration Day in 2021. But on this coming January 20 we will be holding the first inauguration of a septuagenarian as an incoming president (Ronald Reagan missed this distinction by turning 70 eleven days after he took the oath). And the renewed speculation over Biden inevitably draws attention to the virtual gerontocracy currently afflicting the Democratic Party’s leaders as the opposition tries to design a way to force the 45th president into retirement.

Biden is, by any standard, a tad long in the tooth. But he’s a year younger than Bernie Sanders, the reigning Democratic primary vote-winner now that Hillary Clinton (a wee slip of a girl, at 69) has gone into seclusion for a time. And Sanders is a year younger than House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi.

Yes, there are some younger Democratic leaders: Senate Leader Chuck Schumer is only 66, barely old enough to qualify for his favorite government program, Medicare. Elizabeth Warren, probably the early front-runner for 2020 if she decides to take that path, is 67.

What’s shocking is the realization that some of the Democratic office-holders we think of as the wave of a distant future aren’t exactly young uns. California Senator Kamala Harris is 52. New York senator Kirsten Gillibrand turns 50 this weekend. New Jersey senator Corey Booker is 47, but even he is probably past the age when you’re likely to run into him when you’re out clubbing.

So long as Trump and the 57-year-old Mike Pence (whose white hair makes him seem a bit older than his actual years) are running things in Washington, Democrats won’t necessarily have a disadvantage on the top leadership’s actuarial tables. But it is probably time for people in both parties to figure out that if 70 is the new 50, what is the upper limit to the age at which leaders can still lead?

Political leaders who have to actually run for election probably should not be compared to autocrats-hanging-onto-power like Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, who at 92 is still making life miserable for his countrymen (yes, Mugabe is technically an elected leader, but not really). Until the week before last, Fidel Castro was hanging right in there with Mugabe, at 90; with his death, his brother Raul is bringing in a youthful perspective on Cuba’s future, at 85. And the Palestinian Authority’s Mahmoud Abbas was still making news this week with a consolidation of power at the age of 81.

Two countries famed for gerontocratic leadership cliques actually have relative whippersnappers at the helm today: Russia’s Vladimir Putin is 64, and China’s Xi Jinping is 63. For that matter, one of the longer-ruling democratically elected leaders, Germany’s Angela Merkel, is only 62.

Looking at the historical record, two major 20th-century leaders provide a pretty good example of how long elected leaders can stick around under the right circumstances. Konrad Adenauer became chancellor of West Germany at the age of 72 after World War II, and remained in that office for another 14 years. His nickname, appropriately, was “Der Alte” (The Old Man). Then there was Winston Churchill, whose second hitch as prime minister of the U.K. began when he was 76 (a year younger than Biden would be in 2020). Churchill had a stroke two years later, but stayed in office until he was 80. He lived on for another decade after that.

We all hope our political leaders live long and prosper. But Democrats should probably start promoting some younger talent before long.

The Gerontocracy of Democratic Party Leadership