Despite all the quiet chatter about America’s aging political leadership, a slow but growing burn as we move into a new political season, it is our view that age is a crude and mostly worthless determination of fitness for office. Older people typically come with vast amounts of experience, a better sense of their own selves and a more measured view on life.
Competence is what matters.
The reality, of course, is that people age differently: There are 100-year-olds more capable than 80-year-olds, and 90-year-olds with minds more usually associated with those who are decades younger. And, it must be said, there are those for whom aging proceeds so rapidly, they would be incapable of handling a demanding job such as president of the United States when many of their peers would have no such difficulty.
America, of course, cannot have this necessary conversation because it is so riven by partisanship.
Over the last few weeks, the age issue has repeatedly come up in relation to President Joe Biden, who is 80 years old and likely running for a second term; presidential candidate Donald J. Trump (77), who is running again, legal issues notwithstanding; Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (81); and former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (83), who recently said she will run for reelection.
We’ve read one piece after another focusing on the alleged incompetence of a writer’s ideological opponent, conveniently ignoring a similar problem in the writer’s own camp. Biden recently said something supportive of McConnell, but with that rare exception, the Democrats and Republicans have settled into a iron-clad but still dysfunctional strategy: Whatever is done about someone who does not appear to be fit for office any longer, it must be done without political risk.
And there’s the problem. A Democrat does not appear able to look honestly at the strengths and weaknesses of McConnell, anymore than a Republican can look fairly at the issues with Biden. As a result, you get the absurd situation in which Republican political strategists lament, without irony, how the issues with McConnell have blunted their planned attack strategy involving Biden’s age, as if two completely different men in completely different jobs with completely different personalities and health profiles are simply equivalencies, rather than human beings in all their messiness and glory.
Democrats also see much of Trump’s scorched-earth bluster as age-related (so do we, for that matter), even if his supporters don’t care. Meanwhile, Republicans try to paint Biden’s signs of aging as turning him into a mere puppet of the so-called deep state, when that clearly is not true. Of course, denying that those physical signs are visible isn’t speaking the truth, either.
In an ideal world, these politicians would be able to judge their own situations and exit the stage at the perfect moment, before whispers about incompetence emerge. From a reputational point of view, this would appear to have been a great option for Biden, who could have declared many victories, but he has rejected the option. And the decision was his to make.
We really do need a better system to judge these things with compassion, awareness of the value of the experience and a clear-eyed view of the demands of an office stretching years into the future.
In its absence, we could do with more senior politicians designating someone they trust to tell them when they have to go. They’re not so good at seeing it themselves.