Let me begin with an admission: I am old. The same age as Bernie Sanders, actually, and just a couple of years older than Joe Biden. I know firsthand that age bestows a number of benefits along with the gray hair and sagging skin: more tolerance for the foibles of others, a broader context within which to analyze thorny issues, greater appreciation for the complexities of the world.
When we are determining which candidate the Democrats should nominate to occupy the Oval Office, however, those benefits must be weighed against some undeniable negatives.
First and foremost is political reality. If a Democrat wins the 2020 election, he or she needs to be seen as a possible– or likely– two-term President. Thanks to Mitch McConnell and the Republican Senate, we have ample evidence that the GOP will do everything in its power to run the clock out on a President in his last–or only–term. (Ask Merrick Garland if you don’t believe me–or look at the overall pathetic performance of Congress in Obama’s last term.) It’s much, much harder to pursue that strategy with someone who is potentially a two-term President.
Someone who assumes office at the age of 78 or 80 is not a two-termer.
Second, the world into which someone was socialized matters. A lot. The reality we occupy growing up shapes us in ways we only dimly recognize. Joe Biden’s hugging and physical demonstrativeness is just one example; I love Biden, and I recognize his behavior as fairly typical of affectionate men of his and my generation. We all grow up unthinkingly accepting the social norms of the world we were born into as “the way it is,” making it very difficult to realize that “the way it is” isn’t anymore.
As a consequence, my generation has difficulty fully understanding and adapting to a world that is profoundly different from the world of our youth, not just because of generational social change, but because of the way those changes have been magnified and their speed accelerated by the Internet, social media and technology generally.
What younger folks find intuitive is anything but for those of us who grew up with landlines attached to the wall, shelves of encyclopedias for information, and service station attendants who pumped the gas and cleaned our windshields. I’m an example: I am not the Luddite some of my age cohort are–I use an iPhone and laptop, I read on a Kindle, and I review research studies about the sometimes convoluted ways in which technology and social media are constantly changing social norms–but none of this comes easily or naturally, as it so clearly does to my students and grandchildren.
Nor does my understanding go very deep; like most of my generation, I rely on younger people if I need to go beyond superficial knowledge of how it all works.
If Russian bots are exacerbating America’s tribal divisions, those dealing with the problem need to understand what bots are, what they do and how they are deployed. If virtual currencies like Bitcoin are threatening to destabilize global monetary systems, they need to understand how those currencies work, how they are generated and why they have value. And that’s just two examples.
Thirdly, and much as I hate to admit it, age takes an inexorable physical and mental toll. I’m a pretty high energy person, and I am blessed with excellent health. But there is absolutely no way that I could discharge even the purely physical requirements of a job like the Presidency. (My theory is that Trump’s well-documented aversion to actually doing any work is partly due to his age and poor physical condition.) And numerous studies definitively show that on nearly every scale of intellectual capacity, people over 70 have less flexibility and less to offer than younger generations.
There comes a time when we older folks need to yield power to the next generation. We can still offer our hard-earned wisdom, and we can still play an important advisory role. But existential threats like climate change need to be addressed by those who will live with its effects; racism, sexism and other bigotries can best be dealt with by people who have grown up seeing mothers who are doctors, lawyers and CEOs, and interacting with friends and classmates of many races, religions and sexual identities.
America owes huge debts to Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders. We are safer thanks to Biden’s wisdom on foreign policy and exceptional service in the Senate and as Vice-President. Sanders’ 2016 campaign almost single-handedly demonstrated the hollowness of Democrat’s “Republican-lite” policies. His is no longer a lone voice–virtually every Democratic Presidential candidate in 2020 has adopted his progressive perspectives on healthcare and economic fairness.
That said, it’s time for the party’s elders to step back and give day-to-day management of government to a new generation. Fortunately, the Democratic Party–unlike the GOP– has an exceptional young bench.
To coin a phrase: it’s time for a (generational) change.