A collage of photos of Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders

Marc Nozell, Gage Skidmore/ CC 2.0

2020 Foresight

Marc Nozell, Gage Skidmore/ CC 2.0

How Old Is Too Old to Be President?

Democrats won’t win running two of the oldest candidates—Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden—for 2020. To beat the GOP, new faces and fresh ideas are the only way to move forward.

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In 2018, more women than ever before are seeking political office. With each successive primary, new female faces have supplanted older men’s. In June, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez made headlines when she beat ten-term Democratic incumbent Rep. Joe Crowley in the New York primary. Her come-from-behind win was replicated by Sharice Davids’s in Kansas, Lucy McBath’s in Georgia, Rashida Tlaib’s in Michigan, among others. In the Vermont primary, Christine Hallquist made history by being the first trans woman nominee of a major party for governor.

On Women’s Equality Day, August 26, the Boston Globe shocked many by endorsing Ayanna Pressley for Massachusetts’s 7th district, a seat that has been held by Democratic incumbent Michael Capuano since 1999 when he replaced Joseph P. Kennedy II. If she wins, Pressley would become the first Black woman in Congress from Massachusetts. The Globe recounted 66-year-old Capuano’s long, illustrious history of progressivism as well as his seniority in the House—but suggested that times and demographics were changing and with them. Pressley, 44, the Globe writes, “has been a strong champion for women and girls, and for victims of sexual assault and human trafficking. Those voices are often absent in Congress—a deficit Pressley would help fix.”

What makes the Globe’s endorsement so striking—as was the Kansas City Star’s endorsement of Native American lesbian Sharice Davids for reliably red Kansas—is how the endorsement was framed. The papers called for a change. Democrats need new faces and voices. Older white men have dominated American politics throughout American history, but as the centennial of the 19th Amendment and women’s suffrage nears in 2020, changing demographics must be met with changing representation. Because the electorate is younger, more female and more non-white. In 2016, Black women voted 94 percent for Hillary Clinton with Black men and Latino voters close behind. Big-tent Democratic politics demand diverse candidates and provide a stark contrast to the overwhelmingly white male demographics of the GOP. The Pressley endorsement typifies recognition of that shift.

Presently, the House has only 83 women and 95 non-white members—quite a few of whom are also women. The Senate has 23 women—the largest number in history. Among those, four are women of color. Ninety senators are white, 340 members of the House are white. Congress is 19 percent female and 19 percent is non-white. But 51 percent of the U.S. population is female and 37 percent is non-white. When midterms end and the next Congress is seated, the 2020 presidential race will begin in earnest. There’s a full roster of Democrats waiting at the starting gate for the 2020 presidential race to kick off next year. Septuagenarians Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders have been talking about running for the past year. But they’re not the only ones: Thankfully, there are younger candidates, women and people of color, who represent the fresh, exciting, and under-represented voices that the Globe was touting in its Pressley endorsement.

If the Democratic Party wants to distinguish itself as defiantly antithetical to the GOP, they need those fresh faces, not run the same old predictable roster. In the 242 years of this nation’s existence, there has yet to be a woman president. As close as we came in 2016, the success of women candidates in 2018 speaks to the deep desire—even from men—for a change.

The 2020 frontrunners are easy to spot: Elizabeth Warren has been in the top three in every recent poll and has led others. Her fiery speeches on the Senate floor and Twitter takedowns of Trump have electrified her many followers. New York’s Senator Kirsten Gillibrand has become a reliable adversary of Trump, putting forward more legislation and casting more votes against No. 45 than anyone else. She, too, has polled extremely well. The Nation highlighted Gillibrand for her innovative plan for a federal jobs guarantee, among other policies. The New Yorker queried why the Trump campaign was savaging her, but the reasons are obvious: Gillibrand is unfazed by his attempts to smear her. In December 2017, Trump began his attacks on her with an early-morning tweet saying that the senator, who has a more than decade-long history of fighting for sexual assault victims in Congress, “would do anything” for campaign donations. Her colleagues were outraged by the sexually suggestive tweet. Gillibrand responded, “You can’t silence me.” The Reverend Al Sharpton called Gillibrand said she should run for president after her MLK speech in January, and referred to her as a reverand. New York NAACP head Hazel Dukes seconded that motion.

Senator Kamala Harris, California’s former Attorney General, also polls in the top five. Last summer, Harris made headlines when she showed her prosecutorial mettle while grilling Attorney General Jeff Sessions during hearings on Trump and Russian interference in the 2016 election, raising cheers among the Resistance and hackles among Trump supporters. CNN and MSNBC highlighted her calm and decisive questioning of a deeply uncomfortable Sessions and his discomfort. Video of her questioning a cowering Sessions lit up social media and put her on the political radar as star in the making.

Sessions said her rapid-fire questions made him “nervous” and the late Senator John McCain leapt to Sessions’s defense, saying, “Mr. Chairman, the witness should be allowed to answer the questions.” Harris was silenced not once, but twice by Republican Senate committee chair Richard Burr as her questioning of Sessions struck GOP nerves. For those who hadn’t witnessed her lawyerly acumen prior to that day, she rose to Resistance hero.

Harris has thrilled voters in search of a charismatic candidate for 2020 when she spoke to attendees at Netroots Nation 2018 in New Orleans in early August. The biracial daughter of a Jamaican immigrant father and an Indian immigrant mother, Harris spoke to the issue Bernie Sanders has repeatedly insisted is divisive: identity politics. “I have a problem with that phrase, ‘identity politics,’” Harris told a cheering crowd. “Let’s be clear, when people say that, it’s a pejorative. That phrase is used to divide and used to distract. Its purpose is to minimize and marginalize issues that impact all of us. It’s used to try and shut us up.”

There are other names that have been mentioned as well—Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar, Illinois Senator Tammy Duckworth, Hawaii Representative Tulsi Gabbard—but Gillibrand, Harris, and Warren top the list.

Sanders and Biden hover in the top five of every poll, too, because their names are so familiar. But what of Biden’s and Sanders’s age? Hillary Clinton, who is seven years younger than Sanders and six years younger than Biden, has been deemed too old for another run, so why aren’t they? Ageism can’t be dismissed. Saying someone is too old to run for office seems qualitatively similar to saying women can’t run because of hormones. Certainly everyone on the left is praying Ruth Bader Ginsburg, 85, will live to be 100 and stay on the Supreme Court until a Democrat is elected president. Complaints that Nancy Pelosi, who is Sanders’s age, should step aside to make way for a younger House Minority Leader has been a GOP talking point, as well as media hype.

But ageism aside, it is easy to assert that Biden and Sanders are indeed too old to run in 2020. This is not specifically due to their chronological age but in how long they have been in American politics saying exactly the same things at a time when the country is aching for something new from previously unheard voices. There is no question 2020 will be a change election for Democrats; Biden and Sanders are Establishment faces. Whomever the nominee is in 2020 must be prepared to be the incumbent in 2024. The sudden death of Antonin Scalia from a heart attack in February 2016 and the equally sudden diagnosis of John McCain with brain cancer in July 2017 and his death a mere year later highlights how quickly health can shift.

Sanders would be 79 on Inauguration Day 2021, Biden, 78, whereas Hillary Clinton would turn 72, Elizabeth Warren, 71, Kamala Harris, 56 and Kirsten Gillibrand, 54. The previous oldest president in U.S. history prior to 72-year-old Trump was Ronald Reagan, who was 78 when he left office at the end of two terms. Biden and Sanders would be the same age going into two terms as Reagan was coming out. How do we debate this issue without falling into the ageism quandary?

We can’t. Age is a factor because the stresses of the presidency are manifold and the history of their impact on sitting presidents cannot be ignored. Ironically, during his campaign, Trump consistently claimed Hillary Clinton, who is younger than he is, was too old and lacked the “stamina” to be president.

It has since been revealed that David Pecker, Trump’s longtime friend and head of the company that publishes the National Enquirer, issued false claims that Hillary Clinton was on her deathbed, suffering from myriad terminal illnesses while also deploying catch-and-kill with stories that could damage Trump.

We know little about Trump’s health. The two physicians who have claimed to examine Trump gave wildly improbable reports. They did reveal that Trump takes several medications—Crestor for high cholesterol, aspirin to prevent heart attacks, antibiotics for Rosacea, Propecia for baldness, and Ambien for sleep. He is notorious for feasting on a diet of fast food and consuming Diet Coke by the case—and his only form of exercise appears to be golf and tweeting. Not the healthiest lifestyle.

Sanders released a doctor’s note during the 2016 primary in which Senate physician Dr. Brian Monahan, who had treated him for 26 years at that point, said he had been treated for gout, high cholesterol, diverticulitis, hypothyroidism, esophageal reflux, surgical repair of both right- and left-side hernias, a vocal cord cyst excision and removal of skin tumors. Biden’s health status is unknown. Thirty years ago Biden had two emergency surgeries for an aneurysm, but has had no recurrences.

Even if Sanders and Biden are in peak health and Trump is fitter than he seems, the specter of what has befallen previous presidents hovers. The stress of being leader of the last world superpower has impacted most presidents, with before and after photos showing a sometimes shocking level of aging over the course of a presidency. Several presidents have even died in office: Franklin D. Roosevelt was 50 when he took office and only 63 when he died suddenly of a stroke in his fourth term. William Henry Harrison was the oldest elected president prior to Reagan, and he died one month after taking office of sepsis after contracting typhoid fever. Zachary Taylor was the next oldest president and he, too, died in office, a mere 16 months after his inauguration, of cholera. William Harding was only 57 when he died while on tour, a mere two years into his presidency, from a heart attack. Woodrow Wilson had a massive stroke during his second term in office while trying to negotiate the founding of the League of Nations in 1919. That left him paralyzed and his wife Edith navigating as co-president for the remaining two years of his presidency. Dwight Eisenhower suffered a heart attack in his first term in office and a stroke in his second.

Of course, no modern president is likely to die of cholera or typhoid, but heart attack and stroke are the top two causes of death in the U.S.; an elderly president would be at high risk for either, given the intense schedule and pressures of the job. At 55 to 64, the incidence of either is eight per 1,000 for women and 21 per 1,000 for men. But in the 74 to 84 age category that Sanders and Biden are already in, the incidence is 40 in 1,000 for women and a whopping 60 in 1,000 for men. The specter of Reagan’s dementia haunts older presidential candidates. When John McCain ran for president at 71 against the much younger Obama, he released eight years of medical records to prove he was fit for office. Conversely, Trump’s personal physician acknowledged that Trump himself dictated the letter asserting that he was the most fit in presidential history.

The risk for dementia and Alzheimer’s doubles every five years over 65. Regardless of what Trump’s dubious physicians have said, merely watching interviews with Trump over the course of the past decade shows diminished ability to focus on questions or finish a thought without the kind of free-associative rambling most evident at Trump’s rallies.

The world is looking more toward younger leadership as well. Recent elections illuminate that trend with new world leaders all under 50: Serbian President Aleksandar Vučccićcc, 48, Congolese President Joseph Kabila, 47, Polish President Andrzej Duda, 47, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, 46, French President Emmanuel Macron, 40, Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar, 39, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, 37 (who just made history by giving birth in office) and the youngest world leader, elected last December, is Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, 31. Even the dictators are trending younger: Vladimir Putin was only 45 when he first became president of Russia, Cuba’s new president Miguel Díaz-Canel is 57 and North Korea’s Kim Jong Un is 34.

How old is too old to be president? That’s an unanswerable and perhaps even unaskable question. But in 2024, a Democratic incumbent will face the younger arm of the GOP that will include women and people of color like Nikki Haley, Mia Love, Elise Stefanik, and Will Hurd. Rev. Sharpton said of Gillibrand, “Anybody that can take Harlem on a Saturday morning is a different kind of woman,” Sharpton said. “Trump, you better get your best gloves out and order you three Big Macs rather than two, because we’ve got a fighter from New York.”

Democrats must look at the long game in 2020. Is the future female? It could very well be. But what it isn’t, is the old white male guard for a Democratic base that is majority women and people of color.

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