“I’m not going to exploit for political purposes my opponent’s youth or inexperience.”
It was the great political putdown from Ronald Reagan of the 1984 presidential election debate. Walter Mondale, his opponent, had the decency to laugh at what was a great line. Reagan had been asked whether, as the oldest president in US history, he had the energy and oomph to do the job. It was a persistent question. Reagan was 73 years old at the time, and would go on to crush Mondale in the general election that followed.
In comparison to today’s generation of American political leaders he was a stripling youth; a tyro. American politics is beginning to resemble the common room of an old people’s home. And it’s turning into a terrible look for US democracy.
For the nearly eight years I lived in Washington arguably the most powerful Republican after Trump was Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader. And now with the Democrats in control of the upper house, the minority leader. He was wily, scheming, formidable and – it has to be said – unprincipled.
McConnell still wields enormous power. But at 81, he’s clearly unwell. On Wednesday he was in his home state of Kentucky and at a news conference had a total meltdown. Actually, it was a total freeze. The 30-second clip of him stuck to the spot is excruciating to watch.
He is asked for his thoughts on standing for re-election in 2026. He starts asking for clarification: “my thoughts on what” he intones. The reporter repeats the question, and McConnell has a glazed look. A young female aide steps in and asks whether he’s heard the question. He makes no response. And she ushers him away, saying “we’re going to need a minute”.
Across the floor in the Senate, there is the Democrat senator, Dianne Feinstein. She’s 90 and still voting, even though it was disclosed recently that her daughter now has power of attorney over her affairs. And a lot of concerns have been raised over her memory following a series of muddled statements where she didn’t seem to know quite what she was saying. There are only 100 US senators. And two of the most prominent are clearly incapacitated.
Nancy Pelosi only lost the speaker’s gavel at the beginning of this year. She is 83 years old. Now in the case of the awesome Ms Pelosi I make no comment about her ability to do the job – she could go down as one of the great speakers in history for her political adroitness.
And I haven’t even gotten to the 2024 presidential election, which all evidence suggests will be a rerun of 2020. Currently, Joe Biden is 80 years old; Trump is 77. And on current form it seems they are unstoppable. A country of 350 million people; a country known for its dynamism and restless energy; a young nation full of ambition – and that is the choice?
Look at the greatest technology challenge ahead for all of us – the risks and rewards of artificial intelligence, the potential pitfalls of machine learning. And then just imagine for a second a serious debate between Trump and Biden on that subject. Let me stick my neck out and say I’m not sure it will be ever so uplifting.
America is fast becoming a gerontocracy akin to those old pictures of the Chinese communist party congress, or the politburo of the Soviet Union on their platform at a Mayday parade.
And the remarkable thing about this is that this is decidedly not what the American people want. There was some recent polling done by the Associated Press. The headline of their research was that Americans think that Biden is “old” and “confused”, and that Trump is “corrupt” and “dishonest”. Those were among the top terms Americans use when asked to describe them both. Three quarters of those questioned thought Biden was just too ancient to serve a second term.
Yet watching the Republican debate last week, you felt that most of those on the stage were really auditioning to be Trump’s running mate, and no one serious on the Democratic Party side is daring to suggest that Biden should call it a day – though many do say that behind cupped hands. It’s extraordinary. Maybe in all elections there is an element of “who do voters mind the least?” rather than “who do they want the most?” – but in 2024, the overwhelming view is “none of the above”.
Plato said: “it is for the elder man to rule and for the younger to submit”. Maybe. But not like this.
Jon Sopel is the presenter of The News Agents USA podcast