Thursday, July 25, 2019

Measure presidential age in ideas, not years -- July 25, 2019 column


How old is too old to be president? Ronald Reagan settled the question 35 years ago with a zinger.

President Reagan, a Republican seeking his second term, and former Vice President Walter Mondale, the Democratic presidential nominee, met Oct. 21, 1984, for their second debate.

Reagan, 73, had not had a good first debate, and veteran Baltimore Sun diplomatic correspondent Henry Trewhitt raised the age issue:

You already are the oldest president in history. And some of your staff say you were tired after your most recent encounter with Mr. Mondale. I recall yet that President Kennedy had to go for days on end with very little sleep during the Cuban missile crisis. Is there any doubt in your mind that you would be able to function in such circumstances?”

“Not at all, Mr. Trewhitt,” Reagan smoothly replied, “and I want you to know that also I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience.”

Everybody broke out laughing, including Mondale, a mere lad of 56.

Mondale told his wife he lost the election that night. There were many reasons Reagan swept to victory, winning every state except Mondale’s Minnesota, but the much replayed “youth and inexperience” soundbite didn’t hurt.

It’s hard to imagine an elder candidate’s snappy comeback line having the same effect ever again, considering what we know now. Five years after leaving office, Reagan wrote a letter telling the world he was suffering from Alzheimer’s disease.

Critics questioned whether he had been slipping during his second term in the White House, though loyal staff said he showed no signs of dementia.  

Now, President Donald Trump, 73, is the oldest president ever. Age is again a campaign issue as several top Democratic presidential contenders are also septuagenarians. Former Vice President Joe Biden is 76, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders is 77 and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren is 70.

Critics question Trump’s mental health, although he insists he’s “a very stable genius.”

Attacking Biden, Trump says he himself looks younger and is more mentally sharp than Biden.

For his part, Biden said if Trump doesn’t stop making cracks about his age, he’ll challenge the president to a push-up contest. I’d watch that.

Age inevitably factors into the Democrats’ nomination process. Pete Buttigieg, 37, mayor of South Bend, Indiana, likes to say he won’t reach the age Trump is now until 2054. Former Texas congressman Beto O’Rourke, 50, plays up skateboarding. 

If Democrats choose the safe and experienced Biden to go against Trump, Biden will need to project youth and vitality through his appearance and, more importantly, through his ideas.

It’s possible, as Sanders showed in 2016, for a party elder to attract a youthful following with bold, new ideas.

But first Biden must deal with his past, and when the Democrats meet for a second round of debates Tuesday and Wednesday, his record will also be on display.  

In the first debate, Biden seemed flummoxed by the attack by California Sen. Kamala Harris on his opposition to federal busing decades ago. Biden also has been criticized for pushing, as a senator in 1994, a crime bill now seen as draconian.

Setting a new course, Biden Tuesday proposed a sweeping plan to eliminate the death penalty, decriminalize marijuana and stop putting people in prison for drug use alone.

But New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, 50, tweeted: “It’s not enough to tell us what you’re going to do for our communities, show us what you’ve done for the last 40 years. You created this system.”

Sanders and Warren each have plans to erase student debt, which plagues millions of Americans, and provide free higher education.

Such policies are good politics. More younger voters turned out to vote in 2018 than in previous midterms, the Census Bureau reports. In 2020, one in 10 eligible voters will be members of Generation Z – born after 1995, the Pew Research Center projects.  

Young voters tend to vote Democratic. If they turn out strongly, as they have in recent presidential elections, they could make a difference for Democrats.

©2019 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

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