Intelligencer staffers Gabriel Debenedetti, Benjamin Hart, and Ed Kilgore discuss whether presidential age is just a number.
Ben: They tell me that back in the day, age was a major theme of the 1984 presidential campaign, the result of which was Ronald Reagan’s reelection at the record-setting age of 73. Now we have a president who’s about to turn 73 — but two of his most formidable challengers, Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders, are considerably older, at 76 and 77. Elizabeth Warren is no spring chicken at 69. So far, talk of being too old to serve as president does not seem to have had a major effect on any of these people’s standing. Is age now just a number in the presidential sweepstakes?
Gabriel: No. I mean, kind of. I’ll be prepared to say “age is just a number” when you don’t have about 15 Democratic candidates out there talking about generational change as a centerpiece of their platforms. Obviously, it’s not the issue everyone’s talking about right now, but you can bet more than one candidate will talk about it on the debate stage. And “youthful change” was basically the entire theme behind the early days of Pete Buttigieg’s campaign, for example — which vaulted him toward the front of the pack.
I generally think our minds have been a bit scrambled on this issue by the anomalous 2016 experience, when we had two candidates who were relatively old facing off. But Democrats tend to elect young presidents — just look at the past three.
Ed: Bernie and Biden are more than twice as old as Mayor Pete. That’s a first in a nomination contest, I believe.
Gabriel: I was recently talking to someone who was complaining about turning 39, and I pointed out that he was Biden-minus-Buttigieg years old. He didn’t love that.
Ben: “Stop making everything about the damn campaign, Gabe!”
Ed: I think there are three ways it could matter in 2020: (1) if a candidate is perceived as too old (that’s sort of what Gabe was just talking about), (2) if a candidate exhibits age-related debility or illness, and (3) a candidate’s age could take away a potential advantage against Trump.
Gabriel: Sure. I still think the most likely way it will become an issue is if a young candidate decides to make it one in a positive way. I don’t think “Joe Biden is old” will be a winning message for any candidate, but “I am young and, uh, others are not” could be.
But — and here’s a point Sanders makes frequently, including when I asked him about it while profiling him last year — 77 ain’t what it used to be, and people age differently. It’s hard to make blanket proclamations about this.
Ed: Bernie presents a particularly interesting challenge, because he’s the oldest viable candidate for president ever but has a really young constituency.
Gabriel: Until Jerry Brown reads this chat and decides to finally get back in the mix.
Ed: Actually, the historical reality for presidents (candidates are a somewhat different matter) is that they have significantly exceeded the average life expectancy for Americans at any given moment. The country has finally caught up with the pols: Bernie’s current age is right at the average life expectancy for men.
Gabe: Here’s what happened when I asked him about his age in November:
“Whenever Sanders is asked about his age, he reddens, cracks an annoyed smile, tilts his head down to peer above his glasses, and opens his eyes wide. The question, he tells me, holding eye contact far more than usual, is getting annoying. “If we say, ‘Oh my God, I have a communications director here who’s a woman,’ oh my God, you would go crazy. I would be pilloried all over the country: I’m a sexist guy. ‘Oh my God, we’re working with African-Americans!’ I don’t know: lalalala,” he says. “And yet — yet! — I think ageism is a real issue, okay? And I think when we look at individuals, we look at their totality, all right? There are, you know, 50-year-olds who retired for whatever reason, people who are dealing with terrible illnesses, all right? Age is a factor! But it is one of many factors!
“I thank God, you know, I can’t remember the last day — honestly — when I missed work,” he continues. Opponents make his age an issue only when they can’t compete on issues, he says. “What people have a right to know: Is the candidate healthy? Does he or she have the energy to do what is a very stressful and difficult job?”
Ed: Of course, that means he’ll be significantly exceeding the averages if he’s in office for eight years. And extended average life spans don’t necessarily mean extended physical and cognitive health.
Gabriel: The question of health has been in campaigns before, and that’s where it could definitely pop up again here. It’s just very hard to predict how.
Ed: As we saw with HRC (and before her, Bob Dole), though, small incidents can get blown up into a crisis if the candidate is a certain age.
Gabriel: To your earlier point, Ed, one of the interesting things here is that voter age doesn’t actually line up with candidate age in any obvious way. Bernie gets younger voters, Biden gets older ones, etc. But to use Buttigieg as an example again, he actually often talks about how older voters have flocked to him in the past in recent elections, specifically because of his youth. So I would expect to see him — and Tulsi Gabbard, Seth Moulton, etc. — continue making this point quite a lot.
Ed: Yeah, there’s data showing that old folks are most worried about old folks becoming president. Biden’s appeal isn’t about that. Got a cool factoid for you: If you divide the 45 presidents into three groups chronologically, the oldest is the first, running from Washington through Buchanan.
Gabriel: Jerry Brown 2020 will even that out.
Ed: At that point, the life expectancy of American men was under 45.
Ben: Someone brought up yesterday that people’s cognitive abilities decline in their 70s without exception. This may be a sensitive question, but are we fooling ourselves in thinking a 78-year-old won’t have some issues that a 58-year-old wouldn’t?
Ed: There’s also the Reagan example. He was clearly beginning to suffer from cognitive impairment during his second term.
Gabriel: There’s no doubt that’s real, but I wonder how that conversation plays out on the campaign trail. It would be very difficult for a younger candidate to say that out loud in a politically sensitive way. Though again, it’s true.
Ed: It probably will only matter if there’s an incident. Once there is, it’s fair game for media.
Ben: I could see Trump using it as a cudgel, since he is completely shameless and tends to project his own problems onto others.
Ed: No question.
Ben: But among Democrats, it’s hard to imagine anyone doing so.
Ed: I can imagine “Sleepy Joe” turning into “Doddering Joe.”
Gabriel: There’s a very interesting test case here. In 2018, Florida Republicans backing Rick Scott repeatedly called Bill Nelson “confused,” which was clearly an allusion to his age. Nelson, of course, is very good friends with Biden.
Ed: You know, I’ve yet to figure out “Sleepy Joe.” Is that age-related? Or is that like “Low-energy Jeb”?
Gabe: I think Trump just likes the sound of it. The original “Sleepy Joe” was Joe Donnelly, which, hilariously, completely threw off Republicans’ plans to nickname him “Mexico Joe.”
Ben: So, in conclusion, we may not see outright ageism on the campaign trail for a while.
Gabriel: At least probably not explicitly. Yet.
Ed: I find it weird that many Democrats are terrified about nominating a woman to run against Trump but don’t at all fear nominating someone older than him. One possibility, of course, is that voters have no idea how old any of these people actually are.
Ben: When in doubt, assume voter ignorance.
Ed: Coastal elitist!
Ben: I never said otherwise.
Gabriel: I look forward to revisiting this when I’m old enough to run for president, after the Brown administration.