When you vote for a leader who is a senior citizen,the technical term for that is a crapshoot. You don’t know if you will be getting a House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, at the top of her public game at 79, or a President Donald Trump, whose cognitive slip-ups are accelerating at 72.
Some voters may decide they care less about youthful energy than the wisdom and experience of a Bernie Sanders (77) or a Joe Biden (76). That risks the “wrong for the moment” problem of candidates who have not adapted to changing times or, as Biden put it, the changing meaning of “personal space.”
Beyond that, it raises the risk of a president who is more likely than someone younger to become physically or mentally incapacitated (or worse) while in office.
Maybe you’ll get a Ronald Reagan (nearly 70 when first sworn in, and diagnosed with Alzheimer’s after he left office) whose running mate, George H.W. Bush, was a former congressman, United Nations ambassador, party chair and CIA director. But maybe you will get a John McCain, whose age (72) and cancer history made it imperative in 2008 that he choose a competent, confidence-inspiring vice presidential partner. Instead, he tapped Sarah Palin.
South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, a Democrat, is running for president in 2020. (Photo: Robert Scheer/IndyStar)
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The point is, you never know.
South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg put these questions into sharp relief Sunday when he officially entered the race for the 2020 Democratic nomination. He is having a surgelet moment, winning so much attention some people now even know how to pronounce his name (BOOT-edge-edge).
Why would this be happening to a 37-year-old gay Christian mayor from a small Indiana city? Most likely it’s because, as Dayton, Ohio, mayor Nan Whaley put it Sunday, “he is the polar opposite in every way of Donald Trump.”
Democrats have a large and young 2020 field
The president spent a 50-year real estate development career gaming and cheating the system to make and keep as much money as possible. He did not serve in office or the military and did not trouble himself to learn about the U.S. system of government, much less American values and first principles.
Buttigieg, young as he is, seems to understand all of that in his bones. His résumé is short but packed: Rhodes scholar who speaks seven languages, McKinsey & Company management consultant, Naval Reserve veteran who served in Afghanistan, eight-year mayor of South Bend. He’s the type of young person who gets approving nods from older persons.
Most importantly for this campaign, his thoughts on challenges and policies sound sensible and unifying, as opposed to incoherent and polarizing. You hear it in the interviews Buttigieg has been doing nonstop, and you saw it Sunday in the kickoff rally — the type of event candidates use to define themselves.
Buttigieg channeled both Barack Obama (“running for office is an act of hope” and as a gay man whose husband watched him announce his candidacy, how could he not believe in hope?) and Trump (“I do believe in American greatness,” he said. “I believe we can guide this country and one another to a better place”).
Trump is showing signs of age
This is not a Buttigieg endorsement; Democrats have a wide, skilled field of aspirants with interesting backgrounds and policy ideas. And let’s face it, to Democrats, most independents and some Republicans, anyone but Trump would be an improvement — even if you set aside policy clashes and offensive behavior.
Just this month, addressing the Republican Jewish Coalition, Trump seemed to forget for a few moments that they were Republicans and Americans. “How the hell did you support President Obama? How did you do it? How did you support the Democrats?” he asked them. (They didn’t.) He also called Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu “your prime minister.”
That was just a few days after Trump said his father had been born “in a very wonderful place in Germany” (actually, that was his grandfather; his father was born in the Bronx, New York); said we have to “get rid of judges” to fix the immigration system; floated the (groundless) idea that noise from wind farms causes cancer; and told Republicans to be “more paranoid” about elections because “I don’t like the way the votes are being tallied.”
What should matter in choosing a president
In the 2016 primaries, Sanders got more votes from people under 30 than Trump and Hillary Clinton combined. This is not all that surprising, given the appeal of his anti-establishment, had-enough message of change; the choices available to them, and their possibly loose grasp on the universal pre-existing condition of aging. Most don’t need naps and they embrace technological innovation as if they were born to it, which they were.
This time, at least on the Democratic side, many candidates in their 30s, 40s and 50s would be an automatic generational contrast to Trump, and two in their late 60s (Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Washington Gov. Jay Inslee) are close to Trump’s age yet offer a contrast by running to save capitalism and the planet, respectively. Running toward the future, not the past.
Still, seven of 10 Democrats and Democratic leaners in a Quinnipiac Poll last month said the age of a candidate is not an important factor to them. As a person of a certain age, I feel comfortable saying that it should be. And I hope it will be.
Jill Lawrence is the commentary editor of USA TODAY and author of “The Art of the Political Deal: How Congress Beat the Odds and Broke Through Gridlock.” Follow her on Twitter: @JillDLawrence
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