This year, Republicans have chosen to nominate for president a war hero and longtime senator with one losing White House bid under his belt. In 1996, the party put up a 73-year-old war hero and longtime senator who already had two failed White House campaigns to this name.
On this basis, it has become fashionable to compare John McCain to Bob Dole, the septuagenarian whose listless ’96 effort established the low-water mark for Republicans in the post-Goldwater era—159 electoral votes and 41 percent of the national popular vote.
Reflecting on Mr. McCain’s recent biography-themed campaign swing and a new ad, The Atlantic’s Ross Douthat wrote that the G.O.P. standard-bearer “pushes all my Dole-redux buttons.”
But Mr. McCain has less in common with that geriatric G.O.P. nominee than he does with another one: Ronald Reagan, who, even though he was months shy of his 74th birthday and 18 years older than his Democratic opponent, managed to be seen as the “young” candidate in his landslide re-election victory in 1984.
Physically, Reagan in ’84 appeared every bit as old as Mr. McCain, who routinely describes himself as “older than dirt,” does today. And he was haunted by the same “Is he too old?” news stories that Mr. McCain now confronts, stories that Reagan only played into when he delivered one of the most memorably shaky debate performances—filled with long, empty pauses—in the television era.
Throughout the ’84 campaign, voters told pollsters that they had reservations about re-electing a president as old as Reagan, someone who’d be 78 years old at the end of his term. But on Election Day, Reagan came within a few thousand votes in Minnesota of scoring a historic 50-state sweep against 56-year-old Walter Mondale. This revealed an electoral truth: The question of a candidate’s numerical age is like the issue of experience; it almost always registers in polls, but it really isn’t determinative when voters are finally handed their ballots.
Or, to put it another way, it’s not that age isn’t important to voters. It’s just that they prefer to measure it in less-than-literal terms, favoring the candidate who represents “the future” – no matter how old or young – over the one who represents “the past.” In this sense, a senior citizen is perfectly capable of running a youthful campaign, just as a middle-aged politician can seem hopelessly trapped in a bygone era.
This is precisely what happened in ’84. With his warm presence, cheery manner, and can-do optimism – not to mention his folksy rhetoric, rich with easily-understood parables and devoid of technocratic policy-speak – Reagan invited Americans to see the future for all of its expansive possibilities and to embrace it with confidence, while Mondale, two decades his junior, reeked of the tired world of backroom D.C. politics. The idea of Walter Mondale seemed decades older than Reagan himself.
The same could be said of Mr. Dole in ’96, who – like Mr. Mondale in ’84 – faced the added burden of opposing an optimistic incumbent president whom most voters saw little reason to fire. Mr. Dole was dour and dry on the stump, campaigning on a platform of exhausted clichés and routinely lapsing into Senate-speak, which only confirmed most voters’ knee-jerk summation of him: Uninspiring party hack. Ironically, Mr. Dole did (and does) have a winning sense of humor, but few saw it in ’96 until he paid a visit to David Letterman’s show – three days after the election.
But Mr. McCain is far different. Fair or not, many Americans see him as a fearless and principled maverick, something that explains his enduring popularity with independents and even some Democrats. The idea of a reformer is inherently “young,” no matter that reformer’s numerical age.
Moreover, Mr. McCain’s style is more high-spirited and freewheeling than Mr. Dole’s or Mr. Mondale’s. He can be tense and dour in some public settings, particularly when dealing with uncomfortable questions, but he balances that with healthy doses of wit and irreverence. Like with Reagan, voters are not left to wonder – despite his advanced age – whether he has blood in his veins.
Obviously, Mr. McCain’s circumstances heading into this year’s election are very different from Reagan’s. In 2008, the Republican Party itself is an “old” idea, saddled with two terms of George W. Bush. And in Barack Obama, the likely Democratic nominee, voters will see a vigorously youthful candidate, more like the Bill Clinton of ’96 than Mr. Mondale in ’84.
But Obama won’t be as fortunate as Clinton in the opponent he gets. John McCain – in a way that Bob Dole never could have – has the raw ingredients to convince Americans that his vision of the future is not nearly as old as he himself is.