The question of age limits for politicians is gaining attention in the US, following troubling moments for Senators Mitch McConnell, 81, and Dianne Feinstein, 90. The issue has been highlighted given the possibility of a presidential race between the oldest candidates in history, with President Biden, 80, aiming for a second term, and Donald Trump, 77, leading the Republican primary race. Various polls indicate public support for age limits, with a majority supporting a cut-off, though opinions vary on the exact age. Some have suggested using age as a political asset, while others warn of the realities of aging in public office.
Lisa Lerer,Reid J. Epstein reported
Debate on Age Limit for Public Office Intensifies
In the wake of several unsettling incidents in the past week, the question of age limit for public office holders has become an unavoidable issue. This has left voters, strategists, and politicians themselves pondering: What is the upper age limit for service in public office?
Age and Political Office: A Delicate Topic
For a long time, politicians and their consultants in Washington, akin to many children of elderly parents across the country, have attempted to dodge this tricky subject. They have often enveloped worries about their octogenarian leaders in a veil of silence. This silence has been preserved by the traditions of a city that equips public figures with a host of assistants, who handle almost all aspects of their professional and personal lives.
“I’m unsure of the exact age, but I believe that generally, by the time you reach your 80s, it’s time to consider taking it easy,” suggested Trent Lott, 81, a former Senate majority leader who retired at a relatively youthful age of 67 to establish his lobbying firm. “The issue arises when you get elected for a six-year term in good health, but four years down the line your health might deteriorate.”
Ageing in Public Office: A National Conversation
Two events this week that were closely scrutinized put the topic of ageing with dignity in public office onto the national discussion table.
On Wednesday, footage of Senator Mitch McConnell, 81, pausing for 20 seconds in front of TV cameras caused a stir across the internet and news broadcasts. Following this, less than a day later, another video surfaced showing Senator Dianne Feinstein, 90, looking puzzled when asked to vote in a committee.
The debate around age in politics has been growing for months, with the country potentially looking at a presidential race between the oldest candidates in American history. President Biden, 80, already the oldest president to sit in the White House, is seeking a second term, and Donald J. Trump, 77, is leading the Republican primary race.
Opinions on Age and Political Office
“When I advocate for the passing of the baton to younger generations, I’m not necessarily referring to youthful generations,” said Representative Dean Phillips of Minnesota, 54, the only Democrat in Congress to suggest that Ms. Feinstein should retire and that Mr. Biden should not seek re-election. “I’m simply talking about a generation that is reasonably less aged.”
Mr. McConnell’s incident provided a fresh opportunity for younger contenders to bring up the issue more vehemently. On Friday, Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, 44, a top Republican presidential candidate, took a swipe at the country’s political gerontocracy.
“In the past, you would serve in your prime and then pass the baton to the next generation, and I believe this generation has been less willing to do that,” Mr. DeSantis told conservative commentator Megyn Kelly, remarking that Mr. Biden became a senator in 1973 — five years before Mr. DeSantis was born.
Age and Health of Political Figures
Interestingly, Mr. Trump, who would be 82 at the end of a second term, has defended Mr. Biden, stating that the president should not be underestimated because of his age. “He is not an old man,” Mr. Trump posted this month on Truth Social, his social media platform. “In reality, life begins at 80!”
Mr. Biden’s doctors have asserted his good health. However, less is known about Mr. Trump’s health since he left the White House.
After a video of Mr. Biden tripping over a sandbag in June, White House aides have become increasingly cautious about any insinuation that he is physically declining.
The Power of Age
Some of Mr. Biden’s top advisers argue that his campaign should directly acknowledge his age as a political advantage — and an undeniable fact — rather than evade the issue.
“Age is indeed a superpower,” declared Jeffrey Katzenberg, 72, the Hollywood tycoon whom Mr. Biden named as a co-chairman of his campaign. “You can’t escape it because you’re 80 years old, right? There’s no denying it. I strongly believe this is one of his greatest strengths.”
Voters’ Perception of Age in Politics
Surveys suggest that voters disagree, with many Democratic voters concerned about Mr. Biden’s age amid Republican attacks. In a poll by YouGov last year, a majority of Americans supported age limits for elected officials but were divided over the exact cutoff. A limit at age 60 would prohibit 71 percent of the Senate from holding office, while a cap at 70 would make 30 percent ineligible, according to an analysis by the firm.
In North Dakota, a conservative activist this week started circulating petitions to enforce a statewide referendum next year that would ban anyone who would turn 81 by the end of their term from being elected or appointed to congressional seats.
Ageing in the Public Eye
The decision to leave a defining and powerful post is difficult, but the alternative — ageing in the public eye — might be worse, former senators warned.
“It’s heartbreaking, embarrassing, but it’s up to the individual to face reality,” said Chuck Hagel, 77, a former Nebraska senator who left office in 2009. “The reality is we are not going backwards; we’re all getting old. At 77, compared to 62 when I left the Senate, I have pains now that I didn’t even know I should have.”