Opinion

Democrats Shouldn’t Indulge Their Oldest Officials

President Biden’s advanced age (80) gets rehashed endlessly, because the human condition makes it inescapable. A deft politician can wait out almost any other liability: Scandals and gaffes fade over time; the economy bounces back; governing errors can be corrected. But Mr. Biden will never be (or appear) younger than he is today. The problem of his age will never fade.

In our fixation on Mr. Biden’s age, we often gloss over the role the Democratic Party has played in promoting and lionizing its older leaders, then muddling through when illness or death undermines their ability to govern. The party’s leaders seem to believe implicitly in the inalienable right of their aging icons to remain in positions of high power unquestioned, long after it becomes reasonable to ask whether they’re risking intolerable harm.

The party has come to operate more like a machine, in which lengthy, loyal service must be rewarded with deference. It is why Mr. Biden has not drawn a credible primary challenger, when polling and reporting alike suggest that Democrats are deeply anxious about his ability to mount a vigorous campaign and serve another full term.

And it is that deference, from those who seek to protect Democratic leaders from all but the mildest criticism, that ensures that we keep reliving the same bad dream, where each subsequent election comes with higher stakes than the last. It leaves grass-roots supporters to see all their hard work — and democracy itself — jeopardized by the same officials who tell them they must volunteer and organize and donate and vote as if their lives depend on it. And for millions of younger voters, it becomes increasingly hard to believe that any of it matters: If defeating Republicans is a matter of existential urgency for the country, why is the Democratic Party so blasé about elevating leaders who are oblivious to the views of the young people who stand to inherit it?

I peg the beginning of this recurring nightmare to the year 2009, when Senator Ted Kennedy’s death nearly derailed President Obama’s signature health care reform and ultimately deprived Democrats of their Senate supermajority, which they might have used to pass more sweeping legislation than they did. Eleven years later, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg also died in office. Her death was a hinge point where history turned and swept much of her substantive legacy into the dustbin; worse, it left living Americans to toil indefinitely under the legacy that replaced hers.

There were gentle behind-the-scenes efforts and a robust public persuasion campaign meant to convince Justice Ginsburg to retire when Democrats still controlled the Senate and President Obama could have appointed her replacement, but there were plenty of liberals urging her to stick it out. Christine Pelosi, the daughter of Nancy Pelosi, who was then the House minority leader, cheered Justice Ginsburg for ignoring the calls for her to step down. “You Go Ginsburg! Resist that sexist Ageism,” she wrote.

Despite all of this terrible history, we face a similar challenge today: an aging party, and a Democratic establishment not just unwilling to take decisive action to stave off disaster but also reluctant to even acknowledge the problem.

When Senator Dianne Feinstein of California (90) developed complications from shingles earlier this year and was unable to fulfill her duties, leaving Senate Democrats unable to swiftly advance judicial nominations, the elder Ms. Pelosi framed the calls for Ms. Feinstein to step aside as a form of injustice. “I’ve never seen them go after a man who was sick in the Senate in that way,” Ms. Pelosi told reporters.

She herself has ignored years of (gentle, always gentle) hints that it was time to step aside in favor of younger leaders with less political baggage. She did finally relinquish her leadership role in 2022, after losing the House majority for the second time in 12 years, but earlier this month, she said she would run for her House seat again.

The end of Ms. Pelosi’s speakership has reduced the overall risk level somewhat. If she or Ms. Feinstein were to die in office, it wouldn’t be terribly destabilizing, the way it was when Mr. Kennedy and Justice Ginsburg died, and the way it would if Mr. Biden did. But it does feed the deeper and perhaps more insidious problem: a widespread sense of alienation among the young voters Democrats desperately need to turn out in elections.

This should not go on. Liberals are apparently doomed to white-knuckle it through 2024, but there are affirmative steps Democrats could take to better allow younger leaders to displace older ones.

Paradoxically, the G.O.P. may provide a model the Democrats can use. Although the Republican base is older, it does a better job insulating itself from gerontocracy than Democrats do. Republicans are obviously far from perfect champions of their own self-interest. Their penchant for personality cults has wedded them to Donald Trump, who also happens to be old, but they are vulnerable to charlatans of all ages. That’s in part because they take steps to reduce the risk that they lose power by the attrition of elderly leaders. Justice Anthony Kennedy timed his retirement so a Republican president could replace him; the House G.O.P. has cycled through several leaders over the past decade and a half, none of them terribly old. When Kentucky’s Democratic governor Andy Beshear defeated the Republican incumbent Matt Bevin, Mitch McConnell, the Senate minority leader, encouraged his allies in the Kentucky Legislature to circumscribe Mr. Beshear’s appointment power — to ensure partisan continuity in Washington, should a Senate seat become vacant. So although Mr. McConnell seems committed to serving out his term, he has a succession plan.

Democrats could adopt a similarly hard-nosed attitude about retiring their leaders in dignified but timely ways. Republicans term-limit the chairs of their congressional committees, which guarantees senior lawmakers cycle out of their positions and make way for younger ones.

Even just acknowledging this issue — and encouraging good-faith dissent — would boost Mr. Biden’s credibility with younger voters. While a political conversation that sidesteps this uncomfortable topic, along with any number of others, might soothe anxious partisans, it will leave them unprepared for hard realities.

Democratic Party actors may be able to convince themselves that there’s something high-minded about muzzling this discourse entirely — that vigorous intraparty criticism is self-defeating, and that complaining about Mr. Biden’s age when nothing can be done about it is a form of indulgent venting that only inflames public misgivings about the president. But they’d be wrong. We can see without squinting that his advanced age has created meaningful drag on his polling, and that it is a gigantic problem for the Democratic Party if younger voters, who are overwhelmingly progressive, come to view it as a lifestyle organization for liberals who have grown out of step with the times. Airing out widely held frustrations with the party’s gerontocracy might persuade younger voters that their leaders get it, and that their time in power will come to an end sooner than later.

Brian Beutler (@brianbeutler) writes Off Message, a newsletter about politics, culture and media.

Source images by Liudmila Chernetska, Adrienne Bresnahan and xu wu/Getty Images

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