vision 2020

Should Biden’s Competitors Make His Age a Bigger Issue?

Photo: Tom Brenner/Getty Images

Ben: The unsinkable Joe Biden is still maintaining a steady lead in most Democratic primary polls, and his rivals’ attacks on him for his insufficient progressivism and record on race hasn’t done much to dent his lead. But those rivals haven’t really gone after him over what many voters and party insiders claim is their biggest concern: his age. Okay, Eric Swalwell sort of did one time, but that’s about it.

Biden has always been known for verbal flubs, but lately he’s been slipping up a lot, including at least one instance of forgetting when an event happened. (He mistakenly said he met with Parkland survivors while he was in office.) Nate Silver recently argued that while candidates are understandably shy about broaching this vulnerability for fear of seeming insensitive and opportunistic, at this point “there might also be something to be said for saying the quiet part out loud.” Is he right?

Ed: Well, nobody wants to be accused of geezer-bashing, but at a minimum, one of his frustrated rivals needs to do some intensive private polling determining (a) if voters know how old Biden and Sanders actually are, and (b) whether it bugs them.

There is some public polling showing that voters — particularly older voters — aren’t crazy about the idea of a presidential nominee who’s over 75.

Margaret: Yeah, I’m not sure exactly how to raise the issue, but I’d rather deal with this question now than waiting until the general, when it will certainly come up.

Ben: What, you don’t think Trump will tread delicately on this? (I should note he has already attacked Biden for his lack of sharpness.)

Margaret: Haha. No, I don’t, though he’s only three years younger. It’s kind of incredible how he’s cultivated this image of himself with some voters of being a robust “man’s man” despite evidence to the contrary. And we’re already used to Trump making no sense. People don’t link it to his age — unless they happen to watch one of those “then and now” YouTube videos highlighting his formerly more coherent speaking style.

Ed: Anyone with Trump’s background who has the gall to attack opponents for lying and for misconduct toward women (which he accused Hillary Clinton of tolerating) will say or do anything.

Ben: Okay, so having seen these other tactics fall basically flat against Biden, how would a Democratic candidate try this one?

Margaret: Maybe there is no way to take it on directly, unless you’re Mayor Pete and your thing is being the young guy. I think you’d have to focus on the gaffes. Like, Warren can’t really go after a candidate who’s only six years older.

Ed: Yeah, Bernie’s sure not going to raise it, and it’s tricky even for Warren, who is 70, though I think it’s generally recognized women live longer and stay sharper than men on average.

Ben: Perhaps someone should shout “what about your gaffes” at the next debate?

Margaret: Lol.

Ben: Bernie is older than Biden, but he does seem generally more lucid … (lucid” being a code word in and of itself).

Ed: I guess, though it’s not real hard to keep saying the same things you’ve been saying for 40 years.

Margaret: It’s hard to sort out what is Biden’s age and what is Biden being a gaffe machine going back decades. The Parkland kids thing was most concerning to me,  where he’s misremembering the timing of a major incident, whereas “black kids are just as smart as wealthy kids” is obviously not great but could be explained as just tripping over words in a long speech.

Ben: Today we had a rather strange Politico story in which former doctors of Biden offered suspiciously reassuring quotes like “When you hear somebody on TV and they make a mistake during a speech or a debate, you’ve got to cut them some slack” and “I am going to vote for the candidate who I am absolutely certain has a brain that is functioning. And that narrows it down exactly to one.”

Margaret: Yeah, it was weird. Everyone is going to misspeak from time to time, but if we’re picking just ONE PERSON to be president, do we have to go with the gaffe machine? The quotes in that Politico piece were almost in Dr. Harold Bornstein territory.

Ed: It’s kind of a shame there’s not some informal understanding that people should stop running for president at some specific age. I’m old enough to remember (unless I’m misremembering, of course 😀) when anyone over 60 was suspect. More recently, after Reagan, 70 was the informal cap. What is it now? 80?

Ben: I saw someone propose that we institute a maximum age for the presidency, the way we do a minimum age.

Ed: That’s what I’m thinking. But it’s unclear how you’d do that, of course.

Margaret: It’s a little arbitrary and unfair — but so’s the minimum age.

Ed: Yeah, I’d say AOC is a tad sharper than Bernie.

Ben: Getting back to my original question: Do you think it would actually be smart for any of the candidates to go after Biden directly his age? Or even his gaffes?

Margaret: Perhaps one way to go about it is to highlight that he’s disconnected from many voters generationally. He’s from the silent generation, yes?

Ed: I’ll get back to my original answer and say the smart play is to find out whether people know or care. If they do, then there are ways to raise the subject without necessarily addressing age. With Biden, you can talk about the fact that he was in the friggin’ Senate before over half the electorate was alive. Maybe ads with old Biden speeches with vintage disco music in the background.

Margaret: Yeah, I think saying “Biden’s too old” too directly is going to backfire. You need to focus more on background differences. Something I was reminded of recently is that Biden is seen as this union man, man of the people when he’s been in the Senate since the ’70s. During that time Warren was a single mom working her way through not-so-elite colleges, yet she’s supposedly the more out-of-touch Harvard liberal.

Ben: It is an odd dynamic in which so many people are worried about Biden’s age, yet all the candidates are kind of hoping he does all the work of exposing it as a vulnerability himself. I do wonder whether, if the polls haven’t moved in a couple months, other candidates will be getting more explicit about it.

Margaret: Yeah, I’m thinking Kamala Harris could make this move, but she may be too afraid of going after him again, since her attempts at the second debate did not pay off like they did in the first. But she could certainly frame as a question of who’s “sharper,” who’s going to take it to Trump with prosecutorial flair. She’s 54 — just four years younger than Obama, which could be a sweet spot here. Not in the septuagenarian club, but not in the maybe-too-young Mayor Pete category.

Ed: Maybe someone should run an ad like the famous “Boogie Nights Ad” that Max Baucus ran against Mike Taylor in 2008.

Margaret: Ben’s too young, doesn’t remember 2008. (Haha, I forgot this too.)

Ed: Republicans claimed the ad suggested that Taylor — a former hairdresser — was gay, but what made the ad effective was the connection between Taylor’s own hairstyle and dress with a bygone era. Hell, reminding people that Biden used to be bald (with images) might be an effective way to subtly raise questions about his age.

Ben: Regardless of whether a rival tries to force the issue, will a steady diet of Biden flubs be enough to imperil his path to the nomination, or does something more dramatic need to go down?

Margaret: Nah, I think something more dramatic needs to happen. It’s not like he’s running against a Paul Ryan type.

Ed: Well, it’s obviously a comparative game, so it depends on whether someone emerges who can force and then take advantage of Biden’s weaknesses — gaffes being just one of them. I don’t think Bernie’s got it in him, but Warren might.

Margaret: I think he’s going to be okay, because none of this is a surprise to voters, even if he’s gotten a bit worse with the gaffes. It’s part of the Diamond Joe image.

Ed: But no, Biden’s not just going to collapse without a big push, and might win anyway.

Margaret: Head-to-head though, whose gaffes are worse, Trump’s or Biden’s? I’m sure Trump isn’t above going after him on hair, but he really shouldn’t be throwing stones.

Ed: Well, that gets back to the shame we are expressing over our smack talk about good old Uncle Joe in this chat: We say worse things about Trump every hour than we say about Biden in a month, because there is virtually no problem Biden has that Trump doesn’t compound. Let’s see, you’ve got lying, racism, corruption … versus hair plugs!

Margaret: Right, that’s where I am personally at this point. I don’t think Biden is the Democrat who will be the best president. But if the primary process shows he is truly the one who can beat Trump I’ll take it. Or “swallow a little bit” as Biden’s own wife put it.

Ben: Oof.

Should Biden’s Competitors Make His Age a Bigger Issue?