“I don’t think we need to have two 80-year-olds sitting in the White House when we got to make sure that we can handle the war situation that we’re in,” said Republican presidential candidate Nikki Haley on CNN Sunday, referring to President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump, “We need to know that they’re at the top of their game.”
Democratic presidential candidate Dean Phillips made the same argument this weekend as he closed out his New Hampshire campaign against Biden: “If you listen to the voters, people feel he’s at a stage of life that makes it incompatible to leading the free world,” said the Democratic representative from Minnesota. “And the same is true of Donald Trump.”
Both ran campaigns premised on explicit ageism. Both lost.
Why? Despite pockets of discontent, most Republicans agree with Donald Trump’s views, and most Democrats agree with Joe Biden’s views. And in past presidential elections, old age alone was not reason enough for voters to dump a leader with whom they generally agree.
The two long shots awkwardly tried to skirt this problem. Haley often said, “I think President Trump was the right president at the right time. I agree with a lot of his policies. But rightly or wrongly, chaos follows him.” To call this word salad is an insult to words. And salads.
What is it about the time of 2017 to 2021 that is different than today? How does chaos “rightly or wrongly” follow someone? Doesn’t that leave open the possibility that Trump’s policies, which Haley supposedly agrees with, attracted the chaos?
In an argument equal to Haley’s in its incoherence, Phillips began his campaign by saying, “I think President Biden has done a spectacular job for our country. But it’s not about the past. This is an election about the future,” But Biden’s “spectacular job” is happening in the present, not the past. The policies he’s enacted—including investments in clean energy, infrastructure, and semiconductor manufacturing—are all about building for the future. What about Biden’s performance today argues it would not be of similar quality tomorrow? Phillips did not, and cannot, explain.
With Phillips gasping for political oxygen towards the end of the campaign, he moved away from praising Biden’s policy record to trying to outdo it—abruptly grasping utopian ideas once peddled in the 2020 Democratic primary, such as Medicare for All (after hiring Bernie Sanders’ former campaign manager Jeff Weaver) and universal basic income (after being endorsed by UBI booster Andrew Yang).
Such moonshot ideas were not endorsed by Democratic voters four years ago because leading advocates couldn’t make the numbers add up, allowing Biden and others to skewer them as unrealistic. Once again, last night, the proposals were not embraced by Democratic voters in New Hampshire. Biden’s “past” list of policy wins is more popular in the Democratic party than Phillips’s slapdash vision of the future. Phillips scored about 20 percent in a low-turnout affair.
Haley’s two-pronged ageist strategy, tagging both elderly frontrunners as “more of the same,” may inadvertently produce some benefit to Biden.
While the former United Nations ambassador and South Carolina governor has spent a year calling for mandatory mental competency tests for politicians over 75 years of age—a criteria that would ensnare both Trump and Biden—she spent most of the campaign avoiding sharp attacks against Trump. That has changed in recent days, as she exploited Trump’s bizarre claim that Haley was in control of Capitol building security during the January 6 insurrection, apparently confusing a member of his cabinet for then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
The Biden campaign’s social media team, in recent months, had already begun pushing video clips that suggest Trump is in cognitive decline, much like Republican social media operations have been doing to the president for years. But when a fellow Republican makes such claims against Trump, it garners far more attention. The net result may be a draw in the viral video wars and a neutralization of the age issue for the general election, assuming neither nominee has an awful moment between now and November.
But Haley’s strategy isn’t helping her. “Do you want more of the same? Or do you want to go forward?” she has said, lumping Biden and Trump together. But to treat Biden and Trump as “more of the same,” based on age alone, leaves out the countless, painfully obvious ways they are not alike.
It also leaves out that, as far as most Republicans are concerned, Trump did move the country forward. His devotees don’t care that Trump had a scant legislative record and failed to contain the coronavirus pandemic. They don’t care that he broke his promise to build a wall and have Mexico pay for it. They care that he validates their worldviews, bigotries, and conspiracies and that he fights who they want to fight.
(Back in April, I counseled Florida Governor Ron DeSantis to take a pass on the presidency because he believed Republicans wanted a more competent Trump, “but that is only a compelling argument if Trump voters are craving competency.”)
And to most Democrats, Biden has moved the country forward. He muscled through pandemic aid. He tackled supply chain disruptions that contributed to inflation, which is now cooling. He protected the Affordable Care Act, which has provided coverage to eight million more people. He capped monthly insulin costs at $35 for Medicare beneficiaries. He’s invested in clean energy and making it more affordable. He’s funding infrastructure, building semiconductors in America, and presiding over a record stretch of low unemployment.
We have two presumptive nominees with different visions for the country, each with a successful record from the vantage point of their bases. Ageism cannot, and did not, erase those achievements. And now, because ageism failed in the primary, ageism is less likely to cast a shadow on the general election.
Author: Bill Scher