Democratic Attacks on McCain's Age Miss the Point

Obviously, Democrats want voters to be thinking about John McCain’s age and fretting over whether it might be eating away

Obviously, Democrats want voters to be thinking about John McCain’s age and fretting over whether it might be eating away at his mental faculties. There’s no other reason why party’s anti-McCain talking points would call for surrogates to so prominently slip forms of the word “confused” into attacks on the soon-to-be 72-year-old Republican candidate.

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In a Wednesday conference call that received much attention, Susan Rice, one of Obama’s national security advisors, talked about McCain’s “disturbing, even disconcerting, pattern of confusing the basic facts and reality that pertain to Iraq,” while John Kerry called his Senate colleague “confused” – a word he repeated several times in an MSNBC interview later in the day. It’s not the first time Democrats have played this card this year, and it surely won’t be the last.

It isn’t the first time in recent history in which age has featured prominently in a presidential race. The 2008 campaign actually marks the fourth time since 1984 that one of the major party nominees has been older than 65. Two of those previous geriatric candidates – 73-year-old Bob Dole in 1996 and 68-year-old George H.W. Bush – went down to defeat, while the third – 73-year-old incumbent President Ronald Reagan in 1984 – won in a rout.

Their examples offer mixed clues on the potential effectiveness of the Democrats’ strategy.

Reagan, for instance, ended up obliterating Walter Mondale in the most thorough landslides ever, by an 18 percent spread in the popular vote and a 525-13 count in the electoral college. And among the youngest group of voters, those between the ages of 18 and 24, Reagan actually fared even better, snagging 66 percent of their votes. With numbers like this, it’s hard to argue that Reagan’s age – or, really, anything at all – hurt him.

But it nearly did, significantly. Reagan’s vulnerability had nothing to do with whether he looked old – he did, and he had for years – and everything to do with his mental prowess. He’d never been a master of detail and for years had been skewered by his political foes and political satirists as being rather clueless and dim. But at 73 years old, there was a risk that voters would see something more alarming in that caricature.

Mondale did his best, calling Reagan “the most detached, the most remote, the most uninformed President in modern history,” and some of his surrogates were harsher than that. For most of the campaign, it didn’t matter. On the even of the first debate in early October, Reagan led by 20 points.

But the debate went terribly. Reagan stumbled and bumbled through most of the night, and then when the time for closing statements came, he seemed to draw blank. The 56-year-old Mondale’s performance was hardly spectacular, but he demonstrated a level of intellectual competence that Reagan seemed to lack, at least on that night. For the first time, “the age question” began to mean something real to the masses. In a few days, Reagan’s lead was cut in half. If he performed similarly in the second debate, there’s no telling what the damage would have been.

In some ways, Reagan’s Round Two performance was no better. His responses were just as unfocused. But there were no long gaps and, this time, he came equipped with a brilliant one-liner – “I will not make age an issue of this campaign; I am not going to exploit for political purposes my opponent’s youth and inexperience” – that was repeated endlessly afterwards. No one remembered his meandering responses and soon afterwards, his lead was back up to 20 points.

Reagan won his landslide because the idea of the “Reagan Revolution” still seemed fresh and innovative to the public, even though Reagan himself was well into his 70’s. Most voters’ only hang-up was whether Reagan was steady enough to lead the country for four more years. They weren’t looking for too much reassurance, but they needed some and they got it in that second debate.

Age affected George H.W. Bush differently in ’92. At 68, and not nearly as old-looking and -sounding as Reagan had been eight years before, there weren’t widespread concerns about Bush’s mental acuity. But with the country mired in a recession, he was vulnerable to concerns about whether, after a lifetime in politics and government, he had the right combination of energy and innovation to bring the country out of its economic slump.

The Democrats capitalized on this opportunity brilliantly. With Bill Clinton, then 46 years old and the first baby boomer ever nominated for the presidency, they put up a fresh-faced candidate from outside Washington who was 22 years Bush’s junior and a masterful communicator. Clinton exuded energy and ideas, while Bush struggled to convince Americans that he fully grasped the severity of the country’s domestic woes. The combination of Bush’s age, his decades in the public eye, and his incompetence as a communicator lent power and urgency to the Democrats’ call for generational change.

The moment that sealed Bush’s fate, supposedly, came during the second presidential debate, when a camera caught him glancing at his watch while his opponent spoke. To many voters, it was confirmation that their President’s heart just wasn’t in it anymore. Bush had the exact opposite age problem as Reagan. He didn’t seem too old physically or mentally, but his ideas and his approach to governing did – especially against such a youthful opponent.

Dole in ’96 had it worse. At 73, he looked as old as Reagan had in ’84 and took a beating on the late-night talk-shows for his age. And because he was trying to unseat Clinton, the boomer president, voters were instinctively drawn to the contrast between generations. Dole’s mental standing wasn’t really in question, but when he referred to the “Brooklyn Dodgers” at the height of the campaign, it proved to many voters that the G.O.P. nominee was hopelessly stuck in the past.

The Clinton campaign skillfully exploited this sentiment. After Dole tried to turn the age issue around in his convention speech, offering himself as a “bridge” to a time when values were clearer and the country was more confident, Clinton pounced. Starting with his own acceptance speech a few weeks later, he talked about building “a bridge to the 21st Century.”

America was at peace in 1996 and the economy had improved, making Clinton difficult to dislodge no matter what. But when the race became a contest between the future, as defined by Clinton’s bridge, and the past – Dole’s Brooklyn Dodger references – Dole’s task was hopeless.

McCain, too, faces hugely unfavorable circumstances. There is massive voter discontent and his party is the main reason for it. If anything, this year’s climate most resembles 1992, when Clinton dared Americans to have “the courage to change.”

But McCain himself isn’t exactly like any of his three elderly predecessors. He looks old, like Reagan and Dole did, but to most of the Americans who know him he’s still defined as a maverick and reformer – an identity that seems young, like Reaganism did in 1984.

The Democrats can make all the “confused” cracks they want. But it’s just a short-term tactic, and a fairly transparent one at that.

Their real challenge is going to convince the public to re-think McCainism, and to conclude that it’s a philosophy just as old as the candidate himself.

Democratic Attacks on McCain's Age Miss the Point