Age is not a problem for America’s politicians - GulfToday

Age is not a problem for America’s politicians

Mitch McConnell

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell speaks to reporters at the US Capitol in Washington. Reuters

Despite all the quiet chatter about America’s ageing political leadership, a slow but growing burn as we move into a new political season, it is our view that age is a crude and mostly worthless determination of fitness for office. Older people typically come with vast amounts of experience, a better sense of their own selves and a more measured view on life.

Competence is what matters. The reality, of course, is that people age differently: There are 100-year-olds more capable than 80-year-olds, and 90-year-olds with minds more usually associated with those who are decades younger. And, it must be said, there are those for whom aging proceeds so rapidly, they would be incapable of handling a demanding job such as president of the United States when many of their peers would have no such difficulty.  America, of course, cannot have this necessary conversation because it is so riven by partisanship.

Over the last few weeks, the age issue has repeatedly come up in relation to President Joe Biden, who is 80 years old and likely running for a second term; presidential candidate Donald J. Trump (77), who is running again, legal issues notwithstanding; Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (81); and former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (83), who recently said she will run for reelection.

We’ve read one piece after another focusing on the alleged incompetence of a writer’s ideological opponent, conveniently ignoring a similar problem in the writer’s own camp. Biden recently said something supportive of McConnell, but with that rare exception, the Democrats and Republicans have settled into a iron-clad but still dysfunctional strategy: Whatever is done about someone who does not appear to be fit for office any longer, it must be done without political risk.

And there’s the problem. A Democrat does not appear able to look honestly at the strengths and weaknesses of McConnell, anymore than a Republican can look fairly at the issues with Biden. There is no nonpartisan body parsing these delicate matters of mortality. Oldsters on both sides of the aisles have become the equivalent of nuclear weapons stored in a bunker in the spirit of mutually assured destruction.

And, as a result, you get the absurd situation in which Republican political strategies lament, without irony, how the issues with McConnell have blunted their planned attack strategy involving Biden’s age, as if two completely different men in completely different jobs with completely different personalities and health profiles are simply equivalencies, rather than human beings in all their messiness and glory.

The partisan media have only inflamed this problem, whether that means scrutinizing whether Biden really fell asleep at a meeting (deep REMs?) or was merely resting his eyes, or endlessly sharing the footage of McConnell appearing to freeze at a microphone. On Friday, Politico published a story with the headline “The Macabre Scene as Mitch McConnell Returns to the Senate,” as if what has been going on with McConnell is more akin to a Halloween freakshow than something many loving families know all too well.

Incredibly, the news site tastelessly treats McConnell’s return to work as a drama-filled event. “There was a palpable sense of uncertainty among the press gaggle,” Politico reported. “Would McConnell face questions from the gathered reporters? Would he answer questions about his physical health and mental capacity? Would we — possibly, just possibly — witness another freeze?”

It’s about as tacky, and as partisan, as we could imagine. Democrats also see much of Trump’s scorched-earth bluster as age-related (so do we, for that matter), even if his supporters don’t care. Meanwhile, Republicans try to paint Biden’s signs of aging as turning him into a mere puppet of the so-called deep state, when that clearly is not true. Of course, denying that those physical signs are visible isn’t speaking the truth, either.  And there’s another problem. Electing political leadership means voters have to attempt to predict the future, too. You could believe that Biden is now perfectly competent to be president (our view) and not want to risk that changing in another four years.

In an ideal world, these politicians would be able to judge their own situations and exit the stage at the perfect moment, before whispers about incompetence emerge. From a reputational point of view, this would appear to have been a great option for Biden, who could have declared many victories, but he has rejected the option. And the decision was his to make.  In the federal judiciary, the issue of elderly judges who aren’t suited anymore for the bench but still are hanging on generally is handled by a trusted colleague. Often, the chief judge of a district will suggest a lunch between two old friends, one of whom will then gently suggest that now might be the moment. That happens all the time.

But politicians tend to be more immovable, experience shows. They’re mostly fierce warriors, always ready for one more battle, and, being accustomed to attacks from the other side, they tend to view questions of mental competence as just another partisan thrust to be repelled. Often, they’re right. But not always.  We really do need a better system to judge these things with compassion, awareness of the value of the experience and a clear-eyed view of the demands of an office stretching years into the future.  In its absence, we could do with more senior politicians designating someone they trust to tell them when they have to go. They’re not so good at seeing it themselves.

Tribune News Service

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