No Country for Old Men: The problem of age in US politics

By TOM RUGMAN

Wednesday night’s vice presidential debate was both more straightforward and more unusual than the one that took place last week between Donald Trump and Joe Biden. It was considerably more measured, and perhaps most interestingly, it highlighted the total contrast between each presidential candidate and their respective running mate. Moderator Susan Page’s opening question struck at a key issue in this election. Both Kamala Harris and Mike Pence were probed on whether they had contingency plans for “safeguards or procedures” should the next president become unable to perform their duties. Harris’s response demonstrated her awareness not only of the historical significance of her candidacy, but also the very real possibility that she herself could take the office of president in the near future.


It is remarkable that the second-in-command of both campaigns seemed clearer, more competent and more impressive than the Democratic and Republican frontmen. But it highlights a fundamental issue in US politics; put simply, the politicians are past their ‘use by’ date. At a time when America needs forward-looking leaders to tackle the problems of the future, Trump and Biden are the oldest ever presidential candidates, with Trump at 74 and Biden at 77. When it was reported that Donald Trump had become infected with the coronavirus, commentators watched closely, and such was the potential risk to Joe Biden that he insisted the next presidential debate had to take place virtually, a proposal which Trump has rejected. The American gerontocracy extends beyond the White House. Both the Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (78), and the Democratic Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (80), are the oldest holders of these positions in US history.


As people continue to live longer, there is a growing case in favour of age limits for candidates to public office. That there should be a minimum age requirement to run for president (35 years old under Article II of the Constitution) but not a maximum cut-off point is surprising. Many have speculated however, that another constitutional tool could justifiably be used in order to supplant an ailing president. Under the 25th Amendment, the vice president, along with a “majority of the principal officers of the executive departments”, could declare the president “unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office”. Indeed, in an anonymously written insider view of the administration published last year, a “senior Trump administration official” speculated that this would have been the best way to remove the president. However, because the Amendment allows for various checks and balances, and for the president to dispute the charge, it would likely result in a messy and drawn-out political battle.


Trump’s campaign ahead of November’s election has taken a similar angle to his approach in 2016; attacking what he sees as the political establishment, and defending his record for taking drastic confrontational policy decisions as a political outsider, particularly in his foreign policy. The ongoing trade war with China and the killing of Iranian general Qassem Soleimani were both among the issues discussed during last night’s debate. Joe Biden’s seniority has been honed in on by the Republican campaign, who, labelling him “Sleepy Joe”, have criticised what they call Biden’s lack of action during the course of his long political career. However, Trump can no longer take older voters for granted, in light of the fact that elderly Americans have been disproportionately impacted by his failure to effectively deal with the Covid-19 pandemic. The issues of wider availability of social security and healthcare, which Trump is firmly entrenched against, are likely to become more important to this group of voters in the current circumstances.


But it is equally important that young voters make their voices heard by participating in this election. In 2016, only 46% of 18-29 year olds reported that they had voted, compared with 71% of those aged over 65. We may be seeing a surge in turnout among young voters in this election cycle. In 2019, The United States Census Bureau reported that turnout among young voters increased from 20% in 2014 to 36% in the midterm elections. However, we are unlikely to see comparable changes in the makeup of political representatives as quickly. The Congressional Research Service found at the beginning of the last Congress that the average age of House members was 57.6 and 62.9 for Senators. For the moment, the most that Americans can do is decide which less-than-ideal candidate they believe will best represent their interests in the near future. But in the long term, it is up to this next generation of voters and activists, of any political persuasion, to revitalise American politics.


Images: Official White House Photo by Tia Dufour & Adam Schultz / Biden for President

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