Let’s Talk About Age and Politics

It’s a Serious Subject. So Far, the Discussion Has Not Been Serious

It’s Definitely a Topic of Late

We seem to have a perfect storm of older politicians. What this brings with it as a matter of national interest is evident everywhere. A lot of this focuses on Biden (which is at least partly wrong – more on that later). I would suggest a few points can be taken as givens that need not clutter the discussion. Among these are the following:

  • Clearly some politicians have aged out, they just did not get the memo. On the national level, watching Senators Dianne Feinstein or Mitch McConnell trying to function is painful to watch. They should have resigned already.
  • The average age of members of Congress, especially the leadership, is higher than it has ever been. Members of Congress are usually older and richer than the country at large, but the current layout is way out of balance, and not healthy.
  • As a general matter, we rely on leaders to know when it is time to step down. There really is no system, and not much serious discussion about this challenging moment. I think back of earlier Supreme Courts. I admired William Douglas tremendously, but he likely lingered too long. Same, sadly, for Justice Ginsburg. But Thurgood Marshall knew when it was time. When a reporter asked him why he was stepping down, he said “Because I’m old!”
Any Policy Options for the Future?

A couple of options come to mind. I have never been a fan of term limits, as tempting as they can be. But it would be one way to address the need for people to retire who would otherwise linger too long. Similarly, set terms for judges makes imminent sense. Having lifetime tenure makes no sense. Long terms are important to minimize political influence, but something along the lines of timelines for Federal Reserve members would work just fine.

Not a policy solution, but a serious national conversation would be helpful. Not that I expect one. Remember when we invited a national conversation about establishing a national health care program? We don’t do national conversations very well. That, plus the divisions and social media toxicity we have today make a discussion even more unlikely. Still, when this next presidential election in done, perhaps we will be ready to talk.

The First Thing Wrong with the Current Discussion

Almost all the discussion and media are about Biden. You may have noticed that Trump is only a few years younger but is clearly in much, much worse shape. Given his lifestyle, I would bet he passes before Biden. And that is not even counting his lack of intellect, emotional immaturity, and general mental health. So, if the presidential race is the subject, let’s include both these guys. Oh, yeah – he also may go to jail in due course, but that is another blog.

The Second Thing Wrong with the Current Discussion

This, to me, is the main focus. Discussions about senior politicians only seem to focus on their shortfalls and what capacities are diminishing. That is a fair topic, but only half the question. Those of us who have friends or are ourselves of a certain age know that sure enough, some capacities begin to degrade. Physical prowess declines, memory may deteriorate (did I say that already….), a good night’s sleep gets to be a rarity, etc.

While all this is true, it is only a partial equation. Two other factors can outweigh these challenges and they merit acknowledgement.

What Base Line is the Person in Questions Starting From?

I call one this the Compared to What factor. If a given individual is exceptionally bright, competent, and motivated, they have much to offer. I suspect that in many areas, Joe Biden on a bad day still knows more, remembers more, and has better judgment than almost anyone who has held that office.

In other words, the standards he sets are so high, that even with some loss of capacity, he is still more than up to the challenges. The man’s depth and breadth of experience is impressive to say the least. Probably the best example is how he handled the Ukraine crisis in the early days. He knew about all there is to know about NATO, thoroughly understood the Russians, and knew how to rally the West in a way Putin never saw coming.

Decades of relevant experience is a national asset, not to be lightly discarded because the packaging is a bit worn around the edges. I would add to that the observation that Biden’s vast experience in government and his personal temperament led him to choose one of the best national teams we have ever seen. His cabinet and key personnel are exceptional. Now think about Trump’s team. Get the point? Relevant experience and character count and make accepting some age concerns as part of the package a reasonable exchange.

The Wisdom of Seniority

This one is a little more difficult to quantify, but we can make the case. Most polls show that seniors are among the most content and psychologically solid members of our citizenship. This is the case even though many have health issues, have lost many friends and family members, and recognize they are losing some capabilities. Yet, they are OK. Why is that?

I suspect this is the case because decades of experience – life, business, all of it – gives one a sense of perspective and priorities that seem right with the universe. I know that as I cruise through my seventh decade, I am amazed (and amused) and how little perspective I had in my 20’s, 30’s 40s. I worked hard all those years to be a whole person, as you surely did and are as well, but much seemed unknown.

Now, I feel more in synch with life and the cosmos. I have some sense of how we all fit in and what choices we can and should make. I conclude that this is possible only because I have invested the years to understand what I could not grasp decades ago. I bet many of you, of a certain age, feel the same.

The value of time invested on a long-running scale is priceless. Frankly, I want some national leaders who bring that perspective and experience to the job. Putting up with some other diminishments in capacity seems a good trade to make.

A Closing Note

None of this minimizes the problem of those who stay on too long. In candor, I would be pleased to see the likely nominees to be a bit younger. But just as age is not only a problem, neither is youth only a strength. Look at the other 8 or so Republican presidential candidates, most of them much younger. See much there in the way of judgment and maturity? I see some, but little.

I would welcome more youth in government. I would also welcome them teaming with senior leaders. We should be able to have both the exuberance and strength of youth AND the experience and depth of seniors. We need them both, just as we need capabilities and character, no matter the age.

See You Next Week

Something fun and completely different next week. I am betting you will enjoy this one – I enjoyed the experience that generated the blog. Meanwhile, enjoy the first hints of Fall, if they are appearing where you are. My favorite season by far.

Bill Clontz

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4 replies to Let’s Talk About Age and Politics

  1. I agree, Bill. There is so much variability in people as they age, physically, mentally, and emotionally. When I compare Biden to McConnell (freezing while speaking) and Feinstein (increasing cognitive decline), Biden’s aging has been different in spite of his verbal gaffes at times (which is not a new thing for him). Just look at his recent trips and the stamina he has shown through a very tight travel schedule, different time zones, and meeting with world leaders. Some people show less decline than others even as they age. Biden’s experience and wisdom from his years in the Senate give our country what it needs right now. And, as you said, he has surrounded himself with very smart, experienced, and dedicated people to accomplish his goals. Hopefully, some of them will, in time, be willing to enter politics and lead our country into the future.

  2. The popular belief is that adopting what is popularly known as “term limits” we will solve our problem of incompetent elected leaders. But, terms are already limited today: six years for a Senator and two years for a House member.

    Like you, I am not in favor of setting an absolute limit on the number of terms an elected official can serve. The real problem is not that Diane Feinstein or Mitch McConnell have become too old and infirm to be in office. The real problem is us… those of us who keep electing people who are less than competent. Feinstein would have been out of office in 2018 if her constituents had not decided to give her another six years. The power to limit a person’s time in office is where it should be: in the hands of voters.

    My biggest objection, however, to a law setting the number of years an elected official can serve comes from my experience at the state level. Eliminating the tenure of a veteran legislator based solely on years in office ensures that there is limited historical memory. It also motivates elected officials who are approaching the end of their final term to spend time jockeying for a different elected position or a lucrative lobbying job.They, thus, make decisions that enhance their future employment opportunity rather than enhancing the good of the state. Finally, with veteran experienced elected leaders forced out, guess who becomes the power base—the employees of the executive branch, often derisively referred to as bureaucrats.

  3. Bill, As usual, your comments are well reasoned, convincing, and I agree. A couple of comments, however. First (with a smile and some pain), we are actually cruising through our eighth decade. It kinda works like centuries. More to the point, the downfall for this old presidential candidate particularly with undecided independent voters may ultimately be less his age than his vice-president. Worrying about a candidates age implies not only worrying about competency but also about succession. All vice-presidents are problematic. Most are unknown, marginalized, and forever untested. A very few have had an opportunity to defy expectations – Harry Truman comes to mind. The current one is certainly little known and although the President has allowed her a fairly active role in his government, is perhaps not sufficiently well regarded to be a viable candidate for the top post. I suspect this may be an area of concern that will be exploited by the President’s adversaries.

  4. The most important lesson I’ve learned by growing older is “It’s not about me.” Disappointing at first, but then wonderfully freeing. A lesson Trump clearly has missed.

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