Way back in the fall of 2017, in one of the very few things I’ve written about the 2020 Democratic presidential contest betraying clear candidate preferences (or, rather, candidate non-preferences), I argued that Democrats should not seriously consider nominating anyone older than the oldest president ever elected, Donald Trump:
There are certainly octogenarians who are physically fit, sharp as a tack, and as competent at work as any whippersnapper. But it’s no secret that when people, particularly men, get to that age, the risk of mortality rises significantly (a 75-year-old man has a 22 percent chance of dying within six years), and along with it the possibility of cognitive deterioration (an estimated 15 percent of people between the ages of 80 and 84 suffer from some form of dementia). If voters fear any of that happening, it could (particularly with some encouragement from the kind of intensely hostile conservative media that Sanders and Biden were spared in 2016) affect their electability in ways that are not easy to anticipate in scope and power. And even more obviously, if a 77- or 79-year-old candidate suffers from any real or perceived impairment, the issue could take over the campaign to an extent that makes Hillary Clinton’s email problem look minor.
Well, so much for any influence I might have. Today, not only are the two late-septuagenarian men I was talking about, Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders, still in the race, but they’ve been joined in the top tier by a third, Michael Bloomberg. These three gents were all born between September 1941 (Sanders) and November 1942 (Biden). By comparison, 70-year-old Elizabeth Warren (who, as a younger woman, has significantly better odds of cruising through the next eight years with her faculties intact) was born well after World War II ended. But if you add her to the gerontocratic mix, you get four candidates 70 or older possessing 74 percent of the vote in the latest ABC–Washington Post national survey, and just 18 percent supporting younger candidates (Tom Steyer, at 62, qualifies as a “younger candidate”). Septuagenarian-candidate support rises to 77 percent in the latest version of Morning Consult’s national tracking poll.
It’s not clear that voters know with any precision how old these candidates are. But if any of them who are older than Trump get the nomination, you can be sure we will be reminded of their advanced age metronomically during the general election, and that any sign of decrepitude, real or perceived, will get the kind of negative attention normally devoted to, say, a nuclear exchange.
Is there suddenly some sort of generic voter antipathy to politicians belonging to the baby-boom or Gen-X cohorts? You do have to wonder after watching Trump smoke Jeb Bush (born 2/11/53), Marco Rubio (5/28/71), and Ted Cruz (12/22/70) and then all these Democratic oldsters (and, in the case of Pete Buttigieg, a millennial youngster), leaving Kamala Harris (10/24/64), Steve Bullock (4/11/66), Kirsten Gillibrand (12/9/66), Cory Booker (4/27/69), Beto O’Rourke (9/26/72), and Julián Castro (9/16/74) in the dust. The Buttigieg phenomenon may be the clearest sign of generational bias. What does he have that his boomer/Gen-X rivals didn’t have? A few more languages?
Yes, we all know about the famous millennial hostility to boomers, and perhaps the belief in the inevitability of economic and social progress exemplified by both boomer and Gen-X cohorts made the whole feckless crowd irrelevant after the calamities of Iraq and the Great Recession and a general revival of historical and cultural pessimism. Is that in operation here? Must we keep relying on ancients until a millennial class of pols fully arrives — until AOC and Josh Hawley face off in 2028?
I surely don’t know, and perhaps today’s presidential gerontocracy is an accident produced by the (now-eroding) belief in Biden’s electability, Sanders’s persistence in making the same arguments against conventional liberalism for 40 years, and Bloomberg’s unimaginable wealth. But it remains odd that the Party of Youth and Diversity, which desperately needs unity and inspiration to beat Trump, is steaming toward Milwaukee with the likeliest prognosis being a vicious ideological battle between two 78-year-old white men. It doesn’t make a great deal of sense.