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The Age Question for Presidential Candidates: A Timeless Debate

  • July 4, 2024
  • 4 min read
The Age Question for Presidential Candidates: A Timeless Debate

In the world of politics, the question of age for presidential candidates isn’t new. Over forty years ago, President Ronald Reagan tackled it head-on with both a serious promise and a witty quip that transformed his campaign from a shaky debate performance to a sweeping 49-state victory and a second term in office.

Reagan’s Clever Retort

Reagan famously addressed the age issue in what many consider the ultimate mic-drop moment of campaign history. “I will not make age an issue of this campaign,” he declared, humorously adding, “I am not going to exploit for political purposes my opponent’s youth and inexperience.” The audience erupted in laughter, even Democratic Vice President Walter Mondale couldn’t help but chuckle, and just like that, Reagan’s reelection campaign regained its momentum.

Biden’s Current Struggles

Fast forward to today, President Joe Biden, 81, finds himself in need of a similar redemptive moment following a disastrous debate against Republican former president Donald Trump, 77. Last week’s 90-minute face-off raised alarms among Democrats hoping to prevent Trump from reclaiming the White House, and deepened concerns among voters about the capacity of either elderly candidate to lead a nation of over 330 million people.

Behind the Scenes with Biden

While many who interact with Biden privately describe him as often sharp and focused, they also note instances where he appears confused, trails off mid-sentence, or seems disconnected, particularly later in the evening. Occasionally, he struggles with names, policy details, or simply moves slowly.

On a call with his reelection campaign staffers, Biden asserted, “I am running … no one’s pushing me out. I’m not leaving. I’m in this race to the end and we’re going to win.”

The Real Debate

Rich Jaroslavsky, who covered Reagan’s health for the Wall Street Journal, points out that Biden’s most critical debate is internal. “The most important debate of the campaign is the one taking place right now in Joe Biden’s head between the part of his mind telling him he’s the chosen one, and the more self-aware part,” Jaroslavsky explains.

A Nation Facing Ageing

At the core of the age question is competence. Americans today have more personal experience with ageing, given the surge of retiring baby boomers. For many, Biden’s performance during the recent debate was a stark reminder of this reality.

Trump, despite numerous falsehoods during the debate, appeared more vigorous. He even challenged Biden to a cognitive test, though he mistakenly named the doctor who administered his own.

Reflections from Pelosi

Representative Nancy Pelosi, 84, reflected the sentiment on MSNBC, asking, “Is this an episode, or is this a condition? It’s legitimate — of both candidates.”

Historical Parallels and Differences

Ronald Reagan, at 69, had pledged to resign if he sensed any cognitive decline while in office. He completed two terms and announced his Alzheimer’s diagnosis years later in 1994. Neither Biden nor Trump has made a similar promise.

Reagan’s age concern resurged during his 1984 campaign after a poor debate performance. But he quickly turned it around in the second debate with a memorable response to a question about his age, confidently asserting, “I am in charge.”

Biden’s Path Forward

For Biden, the pressure mounts, with calls for him to reconsider his candidacy intensifying just weeks before the Democratic convention in Chicago. Unlike Reagan, who was leading before his first debate, Biden and Trump are virtually tied, making every debate performance crucial.

As history shows, a well-timed quip or display of confidence can shift public perception. Whether Biden can find his Ronald Reagan moment remains to be seen. But one thing is clear: the question of age in presidential politics is as relevant today as it was four decades ago.

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