Brett Graham: Aging Democratic field for 2020

Wednesday, January 31, 2018 - 4:26pm

Former Secretary of State John Kerry surprised a lot of people last week, starting with his translator in a conversation with a high-ranking Palestinian official. Despite his absence on the national political stage for the past year, he readily admitted “he was seriously considering running for president in 2020.” On paper, not many other Democratic hopefuls could hold a candle to this multi-term senator, former secretary of state and decorated war hero with three Purple Hearts who almost ousted George W. Bush in the 2004 election.

Not many who reported this news took that angle, though. Most focused on the fact that John Kerry is 74, and his entrance into the race would push the average age in the Democratic field even higher. While this is something that should be taken into consideration, the discussion on age currently dominating columns and 2020 speculation needs to be toned way down in the search for a challenger to President Donald Trump.

It does not take long to recognize the common denominator between these Democratic candidates. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., would be 79 should he assume the presidency, and former Vice President Joe Biden would be 77. By comparison, Kerry would be a spry 76 and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass, the kid of the group, would be 71. This is all in comparison to Trump, who would be 74.

At first glance, one wonders why the party of progress would struggle to recruit a candidate who was born more recently than the Eisenhower administration. What happened to the youthful energy of Obama ‘08 and even Clinton ‘92? Both campaigned and assumed office in their late 40s.

These concerns are understandable, given the questions about our current commander in chief’s health, from heart fitness to dementia to poor dieting. Everyone has seen those comparisons of presidents before and after their eight years in office: grayer, tired, worn down. For some, the legacy of former President Ronald Reagan is that of an elder statesman with Alzheimer’s disease, having trouble getting through meetings and using jelly beans to quit smoking. Applying for arguably the most stressful job in the world warrants a level of scrutiny as to whether or not one can handle it physically and mentally. Age certainly plays a part in this. But it’s not the whole story.

For one, I know 70- and 80-year-olds who are more sound of mind and have better blood pressure than certain 30- and 40-year-olds. My grandfather could give you the address of the dealership where he bought his first car and who played left field for the 1962 New York Yankees. I am struggling to remember what I ate for dinner two days ago. These things are not linear. Not every presidential candidate operates with “McDonald's, KFC, pizza and Diet Coke” as their major food groups. Not everyone above 70 has delusions of grandeur, and many of these articles come dangerously close to implying some of these 1-to-1 connections.

The first question that every party donor, reporter, Democratic primary voter and potential candidate should be asking is whether or not that person could successfully articulate an argument. Can their message resonate with the people? Are they in tune with our society? Can they win?

Then ask the questions about age and hair color and Twitter presence. Liberals played into enough of this nonsense in 2016, asking Hillary Clinton to dab on Ellen and then laughing at her for being awkward when she did. Democrats need to stop caring about this nonsense. An octogenarian statesman and a middle-aged insurgent challenger are ultimately held to the same standard in terms of their ideas and their policies. Sanders may be, and probably is, more able to energize younger voters than Cory Booker.

Perhaps this early polling speaks to what the Democratic party needs right now — experience, gravitas. The ideal candidate might be Warren or Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., or it might be “Grandpa Joe” — there is no age limit on the ability to have good ideas or serve the public well. 84-year-old Supreme Court Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and her daily workout routine should be enough evidence of this.

Democrats, stop disqualifying candidates. Take a breath. Forgive the irony, but stop eating your young. Decide on a message, a feeling, what you want out of a candidate before you narrow the field. Furthermore, realize that if you ask candidates who are above the age of 60 to start jockeying for position as the most “vibrant” or “youthful,” you are asking to be deceived.

Brett Graham can be reached at btgraham@umich.edu.