The Washington Gerontocracy

In a declining society, the images of an aging leadership can come to embody a general sense of withering and decay. A civic nightmare becomes the caricaturist’s dream. In Moscow, the late nineteen-seventies and early eighties was the era known as zastoi, the time of stagnation. Leonid Brezhnev, the Communist Party’s longtime General Secretary until his death, in 1982, suffered from arteriosclerosis and an alarming dependence on sleeping pills; ordinary Soviets, in the privacy of their kitchens, mocked his inability to speak a clear sentence. Brezhnev’s successor, Yuri Andropov, was stricken by kidney failure shortly after taking office and lasted fifteen months. The Kremlin H.R. department promoted Konstantin Chernenko, an unsteady chain-smoker in his eighth decade. His emphysema was so acute that he could not climb the steps to the Lenin Mausoleum. Soon, he was often working from the hospital. In February, 1985, a large room there was remodelled so that television viewers could watch him casting his ballot at his “local polling station.” Two weeks later, Chernenko was dead.

Is the United States in the midst of its own zastoi? Are we a teetering democracy of gerontocrats? The polls show that much of the American electorate fears just that. Cautionary tales abound: Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, age eighty-one, standing frozen before the cameras, unable to speak, evidently suffering the aftereffects of a fall; Senator Dianne Feinstein, age ninety, evidently confused in hearings and interviews. Nancy Pelosi, rather than returning home to San Francisco with a justified sense of triumph, is running. Again. Even those who admired Ruth Bader Ginsburg deeply must admit that her decision to gamble on her fragile health and the Hillary Clinton campaign could not have been costlier.

Joe Biden—in part because of the immense divisions in American politics, in part because of his failure to match the proficiency of his Administration with an inspiring fluency at the microphone—is struggling. If Biden, who will be eighty-one in November, were ten or fifteen years younger, he might well have a clear glide path to reëlection. But he is not, and he does not. In polls from the A.P.-norc Center, the Wall Street Journal, and CNN, more than seventy per cent of respondents suggested that Biden is too old to be effective in a second term. According to a CBS News/YouGov poll released last week, only thirty-four per cent of registered voters believe that Biden would complete a second term; the number for Donald Trump, who is just three years younger, is fifty-five per cent.

The logic for Biden’s reëlection bid is plain. He emerged from a highly competitive Democratic field in 2020 and went on to beat Trump, who now faces an array of indictments. As President, Biden can claim significant successes: jobs created; inflation diminished; a pandemic under control; the passage of major environmental and infrastructure legislation; the mobilization of NATO to defend Ukraine. He should be capable of defeating Trump again and of making further gains on many more issues, from income inequality to the climate crisis. Besides, the actuarial charts tell us that Americans in Biden’s demographic who reach eighty in reasonable health will likely reach ninety, too.

Nonetheless, many Democrats dream of another option. Recently, David Ignatius, a columnist for the Washington Post who is wired into the D.C. establishment, joined the ranks of concerned voices calling on Biden to step aside. Others have called for younger candidates to join the race. Yet the modern history of primary challenges to an incumbent is not encouraging. Ronald Reagan’s run against Gerald Ford, in 1976, weakened Ford in the general election against Jimmy Carter. Edward Kennedy’s challenge to Carter, four years later—no matter how bumbling—could only have further diminished Carter’s already slim chances for reëlection. In the past seven decades, in fact, strong primary challenges to an incumbent have always preceded a loss of the White House. The specific quandary posed by Biden’s Vice-President, Kamala Harris, is that her polling numbers are worse than Biden’s, and she performed poorly in the Democratic Presidential primaries in 2020.

Then, there’s the “compared with what?” factor. Trump’s general malevolence sometimes obscures his incoherence. Trump recently made an appearance in which—even as he was calling Biden “cognitively impaired”—he suggested that we were headed toward “World War Two.” He also seemed to suggest that he had beaten Barack Obama in 2016, and was leading him now in the polls. Yet somehow Trump’s bile reads to his supporters as vitality.

Last week, Trump used the occasion of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, to send out this winning message on social media: “Just a quick reminder for liberal Jews who voted to destroy America & Israel because you believed false narratives! Let’s hope you learned from your mistake & make better choices moving forward!” Trump supporters see no evidence here of cognitive or moral deficits; it’s just Trump being Trump. The reaction was different when, at a press conference in Hanoi, Biden, in his now sandpapery voice, slipped in an obscure movie reference and fumbled with his notes.

A double standard? No doubt. But the prospect of a Presidential election as a contest of the ancients is not a heartening one, and the anxieties it provokes cannot be dismissed as ageism. What are younger people, especially, to make of a political culture in which incumbents cling so tenaciously to their seats? The median age for senators is now around sixty-five. Mitt Romney, announcing his retirement, at the age of seventy-six, wasn’t wrong to declare that it is time for a new generation of leaders to take the helm.

And yet voting is often a matter of choosing among highly constrained choices. The portrait of Biden that emerges from Franklin Foer’s new book, “The Last Politician,” isn’t always flattering, but it makes plain that Biden is the one calling the shots in this Administration. Unlike the Eastern Bloc gerontocracies of the zastoi era, there’s nothing ossified about its approach to politics. In the 2020 primaries, Democratic voters picked Biden by a sizable margin; he has not, amazingly enough, grown any younger since. The real menace isn’t posed by an elderly pol intent on protecting and renewing a democratic republic; it’s posed by a chaos agent who fomented insurrection and promises to return America to a state of misery. ♦

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