In November, a Question of the Ages?
By Peter Baker
One was a septuagenarian war hero and longtime Washington fixture. The other was young enough to be his son and always talking about hope. In the end, the showdown between Bob Dole and Bill Clinton a dozen years ago turned out to be a generational clash that may offer some lessons for political strategists this year if Barack Obama manages to win the right to take on John McCain in the fall.
A McCain-Obama contest would offer voters the choice of two candidates more removed in age from one another than any two major party nominees in modern times, and perhaps in American history. McCain, who turns 72 in August, would be the oldest person ever to assume the presidency, while Obama, who turns 47 the same month, would be among the youngest. The 25 years that separate them represent not just a lifetime of experiences, but also starkly different outlooks.
The questions, then, become fairly evident: Will voters decide that a president who would be 80 at the end of his second term is too old, or will they appreciate the seasoned leadership he brings to the task at a moment when the nation's place in the world seems so precarious? Will voters dismiss a candidate with just four years in federal office and no major national accomplishment to his name, or will they be inspired by the promise of fresh leadership unencumbered by the burdens of the past? These are questions that are on the table not just for the general election but also for Democratic voters in Texas and Ohio on Tuesday as they decide whether they are ready to take that chance on Obama or turn instead to Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Republicans have already decided to roll the dice with McCain, and strategists are busily figuring out how to defuse any age issue. McCain, like Dole and Ronald Reagan before him, regularly makes a joke out of it. "I'm older than dirt and have more scars than Frankenstein," he often says, and then trots out his 96-year-old mother on the campaign trail to prove that he has "good genes" (never mind that his father died at 70). He suggested last year that he may run for only one term, trying to remove the worry about what condition he might be in come 2016. And while he has more wrinkles than when he ran in 2000 and a scar on his left cheek from the removal of melanoma, McCain has a rugged look to him and a robust energy that leaves his much-younger staff huffing to keep up. He does not necessarily look 72. In fact, a USA Today-Gallup poll out this week found that 35 percent of Americans think he's actually 65 or younger.
But McCain is running against history. Americans rarely go back a generation when picking a president. Only once in the past 150 years has the country elected a new president who was 10 years older than the outgoing commander in chief, that of course being Reagan, who was two weeks shy of his 70th birthday when he took office in January 1981. Actuarial tables are better than they were in the 19th century, naturally, but still offer striking scenarios. A typical man McCain's age can expect to live 10 more years, according to an online life span calculator created by Northwestern Mutual Financial Network. If you assume that man has an active, healthy lifestyle, as McCain generally does, that can extend it another nine years. A typical 47-year-old man, by contrast, has a life expectancy of another 29 years, and more if healthy.
The issue has come up in recent weeks as McCain has been wrapping up the Republican nomination. "When we are talking about a president of the United States, we are not talking about the fate of one individual, but the fate of a nation and of generations yet unborn," conservative commentator Thomas Sowell wrote last month on National Review Online. "This is no time to get squeamish or politically correct, when talking about whoever is to carry the load of the free world on his shoulders in the White House."
But Ryan Cole, a Washington writer, dismissed that concern in the Wall Street Journal this week. "True enough, age can bring its share of infirmities," he wrote. "But with age can also come knowledge, understanding and expertise. Prior to becoming heads of state, many great leaders were soldiers, generals, ambassadors, activists, political prisoners, governors and ordinary citizens involved for decades with the political system of their respective countries. Some of that same patina can be seen on John McCain's rÃ©sumÃ©."
The polls so far have given mixed indicators. A survey by the Pew Research Center last year found that 50 percent of Americans are less likely to vote for a candidate in his 70s, while 4 percent were more likely and 44 percent said it makes no difference. By comparison, just 8 percent said they were less likely to vote for a candidate in his 40s, while 18 percent said they would be more likely and 73 percent said it did not matter. The new USA Today-Gallup poll poll found that 20 percent consider McCain too old, while 76 percent said he is not. Thirteen percent said Obama is too young, compared with 84 percent who said he is not. But 70 percent said McCain has the experience necessary to be president, while just 46 percent think Obama does.
The McCain camp, of course, prefers to look for its model in Reagan, who deftly took the issue off the table in his 1984 reelection race against Walter Mondale by joking that he would not exploit "my opponent's youth and inexperience." But Mondale was 56 at the time and less of a generational contrast to Reagan than Obama would be to McCain. That's why the Clinton-Dole race in 1996 is important to study: Those two were 23 years apart.
Clinton, of course, was in a stronger position than Obama would be because he was the incumbent. Dole, then 73 and the last World War II veteran to run for president, had a more palpable problem with age than McCain has had so far. Late-night comics had a field day with his advanced years. When one pollster in 1996 asked Americans to volunteer words to describe Dole, the three top responses were "old," "conservative" and "too old." About a third of voters said he was less able to handle the presidency because of his age. And Dole was not helped when he stumbled off a stage during a campaign event in the fall.
The irony was that Dole was in excellent shape, according to doctors. He released extensive medical records and forced Clinton to do so, too. If questions arose about his health while in office, he said he would submit to an independent medical panel. When he accepted the nomination at the Republican convention, he declared that "age has its advantages" and vowed to return the United States to the better times he recalled as a young man. "To those who say it was never so, that America has not been better, I say you're wrong, and I know, because I was there," he said. "And I have seen it. And I remember." He took aim at Clinton as representative of callow youth, part of "an elite who never grew up, never did anything real, never sacrificed, never suffered and never learned."
Clinton was careful not to directly challenge Dole's age while still using it against him. During their October debate in San Diego, a college student asked Dole if he was too old to be president.
"You know, wisdom comes from age, experience and intelligence," Dole answered. "And if you have some of each, and have some age, some experience and some intelligence, that adds up to wisdom."
Clinton then zinged him. "I can only tell you that I don't think Senator Dole is too old to be president," he said. "It's the age of his ideas that I question."
So get ready for another debate about which generation has the right ideas for America.
Washington Post editors
February 28, 2008; 11:17 AM ET
Categories: Barack Obama , John McCain , Morning Cheat Sheet
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