We All Need to Grow Up When It Comes to Discussing Politicians’ Ages

We live in a paradoxical time. On the one hand, we are chided that our youth-oriented modern society does not revere its wise elders as do traditional cultures. On the other hand, we currently live in a veritable gerontocracy.

Even with Nancy Pelosi stepping down from her leadership role, age is still a problem in American politics. And it’s still a fact that the most likely 2024 matchup will be between Joe Biden (80) and Donald Trump (76). People, it seems, are finally starting to get fed up with this narrow playing field. Yes, ageism is bad. But a political leader’s age, it strikes me, is also a legitimate factor for voters to consider.

And they are. A new Morning Consult/Politico poll shows that 69 percent of Republicans want a 2024 presidential nominee who is under the age of 70. This is a big shift for Republicans who, when given the chance to nominate a 45-year-old Hispanic named Marco Rubio in 2016, chose Trump, instead.

And the ambitious young pols on the presidential playing field are picking up the “age” mantle and using it to their benefit. Nikki Haley, for example, is making “generational change” a dominant theme of her presidential campaign. “In the America I see, the permanent politician will finally retire,” Haley declared at her official announcement on Wednesday. “We’ll have term limits for Congress. And mandatory mental competency tests for politicians over 75 years old.”

Her primary opponent, Donald (“person, woman, man, camera, TV”) Trump, would qualify for one of her mandatory mental competency tests—which we can only hope will be administered weekly.

Trump (who has never been self-deprecating a day in his life) is unlikely to disarm this subtle attack with humor by promising, as an aging Ronald Reagan did, that he is “not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience.”

Then again, even Haley (at 51) might not be youthful enough for some. CNN’s Don Lemon declared, “Nikki Haley isn’t in her prime. Sorry, when a woman is in their prime in 20s and 30s and maybe 40s…” To be honest, that sounds like something Trump might say. Lemon, who once told me to “shut up” on air, should probably take his own advice here. (Lemon later walked back his comments on Twitter.)

Even in her fifties, Haley (or the even younger Ron DeSantis) would stand in stark contrast to Joe Biden. Democrats have to be concerned about this kind of overt disparity in a potential General Election. A Thursday Politico article reinforced this concern, saying that, in private, senior Democrats worry that Biden is too old and they secretly fear the younger (Kamala Harris) alternative.

But it’s not just Trump or Biden who are forcing us to confront this issue. This week, Sen. Dianne Feinstein was asked if she had anything to say to her colleagues after announcing her retirement. “Well, I haven’t made that decision. I haven’t released anything,” Feinstein responded. “It would be my plan—you put out the statement? I didn’t know they put it out. Okay. So it is what it is.”

The only trouble was, Feinstein had already sent out a statement announcing that she will not run for re-election. It is now 2023. Feinstein’s deterioration has been public knowledge since at least 2020. In 2022, The New York Times noted that she “sometimes struggles to recall the names of colleagues, frequently has little recollection of meetings or telephone conversations, and at times walks around in a state of befuddlement.” Presumably, she will be in office for another two years before she is replaced in January of 2025.

At 89, Feinstein is the oldest sitting U.S. Senator, and that’s saying something. The average House member is 58 and the average senator is 64. For a variety of reasons, the old bulls aren’t anxious to leave these jobs. Some, I suspect, see retirement as an end to their life, or at least, and end to their purpose. But sometimes there are consequences to this refusal to ride off into the sunset. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s refusal to retire led to Republicans gaining an additional seat on the high court when she died in 2020.

Of course, the possibility of dying in office is merely one of the problems with a political ruling class that skews old. You also have to factor in whether a leader of a certain age has the stamina and cognitive ability to handle what would be, let’s be honest, a challenging job for any of us. And even if a leader has the stamina and sharpness, it’s hard to imagine an 80-year-old leader can fully appreciate the technological and cultural shifts that are taking place at lightning speed.

So, all things considered, it’s easy to understand why so many Americans are fed up, and why Generation X politicians—who have generally been told they don’t matter much—are anxious to seize what might be their only opportunity for leadership. The good news for them (and future generations) is that Biden and Trump are likely the last of their generation to aspire to the highest office.

Younger Americans consistently and accurately see how America’s political structure is weighted to a group, still heavily composed of baby boomers, that doesn’t look like them or reflect their concerns.

Philip Bump

Baby Boomers and (in the case of Joe Biden) members of the Silent Generation have had one hell of a run. And when it comes to Baby Boomers (think Bill and Hillary Clinton), specifically, they have dominated our political landscape for—let’s face it—my entire life. The result has been stultifying.

In his new book, The Aftermath: The Last Days of the Baby Boom and the Future of Power in America, Philip Bump writes that “younger Americans consistently and accurately see how America’s political structure is weighted to a group, still heavily composed of baby boomers, that doesn’t look like them or reflect their concerns.”

It will be interesting to see whether younger generations will try to hold on to power as long as the Boomers have. America is unique and exceptional, but I can’t help looking abroad to the recent resignations of young leaders like Nicola Sturgeon, First Minister of Scotland, and Jacinda Ardern, the ex–New Zealand Prime Minister.

“A first minister is never off duty. Particularly in this day and age, there is virtually no privacy,” Sturgeon lamented. “Even ordinary stuff that most people take for granted like going for a coffee with friends, or for a walk on your own, becomes very difficult.”

Will Gen-X and Millennials choose a more balanced life where they serve their country, make their mark, and then move on—or will they follow in their elder’s footsteps, desperately clinging to power until they are carried away from their desks?

Here’s hoping it’s the former. As the old joke goes, “Age is an issue of mind over matter. If you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter.” Well, when it comes to politics these days, we do mind. And yes, it does matter.

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