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.