Like the Christmas-season advertising that starts sliming us between Halloween and Thanksgiving, the presidential primary season has begun wearyingly early. As a registered Democrat, I don’t know who I want to vote for this year. I’d like to see what kind of campaigns will emerge from the crowded field. But I do know what I don’t want — a presidential candidate over the age of 65.
Don’t get me wrong. Ageism has nothing to do with it. By the time Election Day rolls around, I’ll have celebrated my 63rd birthday. Discrimination on the basis of age is as odious to me as discrimination on the basis of gender, race, color, creed, or sexual orientation.
But compare any president’s Inauguration Day photo to one from the end of his second term and you can’t help noticing that in eight years, most presidents visibly age twenty. It is a brutal job that requires seekers to survive a punishing two-year campaign, then be on call 24–7 for any national emergencies that may come up. When running for re-election, a president has to grapple with two energy-draining full-time jobs.
So I don’t want any newly elected president to be more than 65 on Inauguration Day. That is not unreasonably low — it’s the age at which most Americans retire. A first-term president should be no older than late sixties at any time in those first four years. A re-elected president should be no older than early seventies. The job requires skills and experience — but it also requires physical stamina and mental agility. A viable candidate should be one who strikes the right balance.
Friends say: But you are so thrilled that Nancy Pelosi, age 78, has recaptured the Speaker of the House gavel. Yes, I am. She is the best person for the job. This is the woman who convinced President Obama to pursue the Affordable Care Act when he was wavering. She said she could deliver the votes — and she did, making life better and longer for millions of people.
But being House speaker is one thing. Being president is another. Pelosi may be a doggedly hard worker and an inspired legislative strategist but she is not on call 24 hours a day. (Incidentally, I don’t advocate an age requirement for any office except the presidency — and I don’t want the limit written into law.)
Anyone who survived the Reagan era will remember how his mind began unraveling in his second term. He was nearly 70 when he took office and already a little vague (leading to the infamous “facts are stupid things” comment). This gave him plausible deniability during the Iran-Contra affair. His defenders said he was too old and clueless to have known about the criminality of selling arms to Iran to fund an armed uprising against Nicaragua’s elected government. The 65-year rule would have eliminated him.
And it would eliminate Bernie Sanders. If victorious in 2020 he would be 79, a full decade older than Reagan, when taking office, and in his eighties for most of his presidency. Like Reagan he is already a little vague about facts. When the editorial board of the New York Daily News pressed him in 2016 for details on his plan to break up the big banks — one of the most prominent planks of his platform — he was unable to do it. Given more chances, he kept choking up. Not a good performance for the policymaker-in-chief.
But before moderate Democrats begin smirking as I throw cold water on the Bern, they should consider that dear old Joe Biden — as close to a standard bearer as mainstream Dems have at the moment, if you believe the early polls — is only a year younger than Sanders. Biden would be 78 when taking office, leaving the nation with a president entering his eighties even before he completed his first term. John Kerry and Mike Bloomberg would also turn 80 during their first terms.
The 65-year rule would also eliminate Elizabeth Warren, who if elected would take office at the age of 71. She has made the Senate a better place and I hope she stays there. Eric Holder, former attorney general, and Jay Inslee, the governor of Washington, would turn 70 within days or weeks of Inauguration Day. Sherrod Brown would take office at 68, as would John Hickenlooper.
The 2016 general election campaign pitted 69-year-old Hillary Clinton against 70-year-old Donald Trump. HRC is my JFK. I voted for her in the 2008 primary and her 2016 campaign was the defining moment of my political life. I am, and will forever be, a Hillary Clinton Democrat and I will never, ever forget what happened. Many of my fellow Hillarians dream of a 2020 run to right a devastating wrong. I feel their pain. If Hillary were on the ballot again, I would vote for her in a heartbeat. Hillary was my last older candidate — she was special.
But Hillary has plainly said she does not intend to run a third time and I believe her. Nameless “friends” are telling the press she is considering it; what kind of “friends” are these? If there is one job more brutal than being president, it is being Hillary Clinton. Running against Bernie Sanders and Martin O’Malley was one thing; taking on a wider selection of healthy middle-aged Democrats (plus Biden and Bern) is quite another. Hillary has been putting the best interests of the Democratic party and the American people first for half a century. That will not change.
The good news is that the Democratic field is full of richly qualified candidates who meet the 65-year requirement and I am looking forward to seeing what kind of campaigns they run. Cory Booker’s quick-witted vitality has always struck me as presidential material. Kamala Harris is impressively tough and well-rounded, and as our prospective first woman president, she would take care of our unfinished business with Hillary — as would Amy Klobuchar or Kirsten Gillibrand. I am intrigued by Julián Castro and a few others. I’m even a little bit of a Betomaniac — if nothing else, he is promising vice-presidential material.
On the Republican side, Donald Trump — for some reason, my fingers get paralyzed when I try to type “President Trump” — will be pushing 80 by the time he leaves office, assuming he wins a second term. That makes him a flagrant violator of the 65-year rule and oh so many other unwritten rules. But I can’t imagine anyone beating him in the 2020 GOP primary. He has the advantages of incumbency and will wield them viciously. Plus a primary challenger would need brass balls to go up against Putin.
If Democrats are serious about beating Trump, we would be fools not to pick a younger candidate and use Trump’s age against him. Age should not be our only criterion. But it should be our first one.