Rejecting the Notion that a Presidential Candidate Can be “Too Old”

Recently, some of the younger candidates for President of the United States have argued that certain prominent presidential candidates, especially Joe Biden (who is 76) and Bernie Sanders (who is 77) should “pass the torch” to a new generation of leadership. Congressman Eric Swalwell (now a former candidate), former HUD Secretary Julian Castro, and Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana, in particular, have made these sorts of arguments. Even CNN moderators at the recent presidential debate had questions directed at the older candidates which implied the “old is bad” thinking. Such arguments have received attention—so much so that the anti-ageism organization that I am a part of, the Gray Panthers, has gotten quoted by the media such as the Boston Globe and Daily Beast about the question of whether these candidates are “too old.”

The aforementioned candidates are wrong—there is no such thing as a candidate being “too old” for the presidency.

However, I’m going to go one step further, and also reject a number of common notions about presidential candidates and age that are ageist.

One such notion is that old candidates lack ideas. In 2016, Bernie Sanders, all by himself, rejected that notion. Some of the ideas embraced now by some on the left—Medicare for All, tuition-free public universities, and a $15 an hour minimum wage—became prominent at least in part because those were (and are) things that Sanders advocated for at times when even most Democrats suggested that these ideas were too radical. I should also note that Elizabeth Warren, who is also one of the oldest candidates in the race, has come out with many policy ideas as well. In contrast, the candidate often most criticized for a lack of policy ideas, Beto O’Rourke, is over 30 years younger than Sanders.

Some people also believe that old people lack the capacity (whether it be physical, mental, or otherwise) to serve as a president.Julian Castro’s “Are you forgetting what you said two minutes ago?” line directed at Biden in a presidential debate seemed to go along with the idea that Biden is too old and senile to have the capacity for the presidency. I can refute the “old and senile” stereotype by pointing out that arguably two of the greatest world leaders of the second half of the twentieth century were leaders in their seventies and eighties. Nelson Mandela, who was instrumental in the healing of post-apartheid South Africa, was President of South Africa from the age of 75 until he was 80. Konrad Adenauer, who helped build West Germany from World War II ruins into an economic power, started as Chancellor of West Germany when he was 73…and he served until he was 87! These two individuals, as well as many others, demonstrate that a person’s capacity to serve a country effectively does not have to do with age.

Finally, there’s a belief among some that we need to move on from the old generation, and to a new generation of people.I am thoroughly understanding of where this argument comes from—it stems from the fact that we’ve had three presidents of approximately the same generation as Warren, Sanders, and Biden. Those three presidents include the scandal-marred Bill Clinton; George W. Bush, who led the country into two wars and the Great Recession; and Donald Trump, who is currently mired in an impeachment inquiry. That being said, just because previous presidents come from the same generation as some of the current candidates does not necessarily predict how those current candidates will do in the White House.

At the same time, I caution against the opposite notion, that age is an advantage. There is sometimes a stereotype that older candidates have wisdom that younger candidates inherently lack, or automatically have the experience that younger candidates lack just because of age. Ironically, Buttigieg, who I criticized earlier in the piece, is the prominent candidate who is most prone to falling victim to anti-younger-candidate ageism. These stereotypes should also be challenged and dismantled, as positive qualities such as wisdom and experience don’t have to do with age, but with a variety of factors that have nothing to do with age. However, negative age-related stereotypes about the older candidates in the presidential race seems particularly prominent right now, hence my focus on ageism against the older candidates.

Ultimately, the question should not be what age a candidate is, but whether a candidate is capable of making the United States, and the world as a whole, a place that is more fair and more just than it currently is. If the answer is yes, then seriously consider voting for that candidate. If not, then avoid voting for that candidate.

5 Replies to “Rejecting the Notion that a Presidential Candidate Can be “Too Old””

  1. it is hard to imagine Adenauer reaching the pinnacle of power without Germany having been defeated and its entire leadership elite discredited.

    This is not to denigrate Adenauer’s abilities, but to recognize that he didn’t have sufficient support outside his political base in Cologne to be at the center of German political life except under extraordinary circumstances.

    What leader other than Mandela do we know from the South Africans’ struggle against Apartheid?

    Mandela’s stature as a world leader was vital in establishing the African National Congress, (ANC) as the leading party and successfully implementing the peace and reconciliation reforms following the collapse of Apartheid.

    NONE of the septuagenarian American leaders, even Trump, are people of such stature.

    Trump’s sole distinction is incumbency, and his age is the sole reason that Biden and Bernie’s ages are not disqualifying factors in their candidacy.

    But with four septuagenarians running for President and the two legislative chambers led by two other people in their late seventies: Nancy Pelosi and Mitch McConnell; it does well to ask if the age and inflexibility of the current leadership isn’t at the root of our political system’s increasing unrepresentativeness.

    Trumps seems alert and vigorous enough during his press scrums and his public rallies, and has shown great political skill in gaining and keeping domination of the GOP in the face of a very unfavorable political environment. Had Trump not held office, he would never had had the chance to learn the job, and we would discussing the difficulties of feminizing the executive branch and whether Hillary, another septuagenarian was up to the challenge of the job.

    Joe Biden is not an executive type. Biden is a gifted and accomplished legislator, but the skills which made him effective in the Senate are clearly not transferable to the job of chief executive. Biden’s limitations are so apparent that the question of age should be moot.

    Bernie is more interesting. Bernie seems an indefatigible campaigner. One could easily imagine President Sanders, like Trump, ignoring the structures of the executive branch, campaigning endlessly and creating a disorderly and unpredictable executive process. Unlike Trump though, Bernie does not seem to manage through chaos, does not throw things out and see who comes up with the best idea to deal with the project. Bernie seems to be a strange combination of intuition and strict planning. One would expect a Bernie administration to fail like GW Bush, who had a similar style, but who was far more able. Again, it is Bernie’s personal attributes and not his age which make him a poor match for th Presidency.

    The fourth septuagenarian running for the Presidency, Liz Warren is harder to evaluate. As we saw in the fourth Democratic debate, she responds to challenge by narrowing her focus, repeating her mantras and until she settles down, acting defensively.

    Oddly enough for someone with a plan for everything, Senator Warren seems almost allergic to considering the consequences of her actions and their effects on others. Again, this is a quality which she has demonstrated for her entire career in politics and her inability to play well with others has stunted her senate career and left her as a rock star politician with little substantive accomplishment. Not a function of age, but of her personal limitations.

    It is clear that the Dems had a succession plan and had intended that Joe Crowley, defeated by AOC, would succeed Nancy Pelosi as Speaker, probably in 2020. There is no longer a plan for a smooth transfer of power in the House, and we can expect a free for all and paralysis in the House, similar to the GOP during the aughts after Pelosi departs. The determination of the Old, OLD Old Guard of Democratic leaders in the House has left with the initiating branch of our government powerless.

    In the Senate, I expect McConnell to announce his retirement a few weeks before the filing date for re-election and to leave office gracefully. Oddly enough, McConnell might be the only one of America’s septuagenarian leaders to have gained skill and power continually through his elderhood, and if he leaves as I anticipate, to have made and implemented plans for smooth succession.

    With the exception of the House Democratic leadership, it appears that the septuagenarians in the US government have acted characteristically as they always have in their long careers, and their limitations are more related to their personalities and experiences than to their age.

    But the bad consequence of all their candidacies might well be assuming that all the rest of us are healthy enough to keep working and ratcheting up the retirement age to emulate these aged politicians>

    But while age might not be so important in political or legal work, for many other occupations age is an infirmity which reduces performance.

    And America’s elderly are healthy because they are at home taking care of themselves and not at work making money for their bosses.

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    1. No doubt, both Adenauer and Mandela were extraordinary in their own ways and came to power through extraordinary circumstances. You are correct about that. Still, for all the age question gets thrown around (CNN was asking about the age question with older candidates such as Bernie and Biden, as well as younger candidates such as Gabbard and Mayor Pete), we seem to forget that in two of the more challenging leadership positions of the 20th century (post-WWII Germany and post-apartheid South Africa), people as old, if not older, than these candidates in the U.S. took power and overall handled the challenges quite well.

      I, of course, agree that none of the American leaders (regardless of age, not just the 70+ bunch) are of the stature of Mandela and Adenauer. Few can possibly dream of reaching such a stature. The two of them are considered by many to be two of the greatest leaders of the 20th century. But, the fact that none of the candidates or other leaders are of that stature I don’t think has to do with age, but with other qualities regardless of age.

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  2. Good points! I teach my Sunday School class, and I’m the youngest person by 25 years. 🙂 So age isn’t an automatic indication of wisdom. But, speaking more to your main point, it’s just as unfair for people to assume that older candidates are less capable than older. An 80-year-old who lived a healthy lifestyle could have more energy than the 40-year-old obese type 2 diabetic.

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    1. Absolutely! Age isn’t an automatic indication of wisdom at all. Consider the fact that Nobel Prize winners have been anywhere between the ages of 17 (Malala Yousafzai) and 97 (John B. Goodenough).

      You are absolutely correct that it’s unfair to assume that older candidates are less capable than younger ones. There’s the comparison you mentioned. But then there’s also the fact that even many people with poor health still have the mental and emotional capacity to be extremely capable presidents. FDR was in declining health since at least 1940 but still had the mental and emotional capacity to help carry the U.S. through World War II. Dwight Eisenhower suffered a massive heart attack in 1955 but still had the mental and emotional capacity to continue his presidency quite capably.

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