The Slatest

Democrats Are Apparently Very OK With the Idea of Having a President Who’s Extremely Old

Biden and Sanders seen in close-up head shots.
They were both already adults when the Beatles played on Ed Sullivan.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Ethan Miller/Getty Images and Spencer Platt/Getty Images.

Thursday’s somewhat surprising political news is that Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown has decided not to run for president in 2020.

The reason it’s surprising is because Brown won re-election by a seven-point margin in 2018 even as other Democrats in his state struggled, giving him a strong case that he’d have 2020 appeal in the crucial and Ohio-like Midwestern swing states of Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. He also was known as someone who had honed a strong message about progressive economics and “the dignity of work” that had the potential to appeal to both white and nonwhite Democratic voters.

The reason that Brown’s pre-emptive dropout was not surprising, though, particularly this week, is Joe Biden. Biden sells himself as having a cosmic connection to working-class whites and other relatively moderate Democrats, and if he ran, he’d start from a position of much greater name recognition than Brown. The New York Times is reporting that Biden is “95 percent” committed to entering the primary, and he’d be a clear front-runner if he did so as a big-donor favorite who consistently leads early polls. On Tuesday, another potential primary candidate who would have competed with Biden for moderate voters—Michael Bloomberg—announced that he’s going to focus on funding advocacy campaigns rather than running for POTUS. A similar statement was released Monday by Biden’s Obama-administration colleague Eric Holder. And yet another figure who might have appeal to the Biden demographic, Andrew Cuomo, has already said that Biden himself is the best 2020 candidate.

Over on the party’s other ideological wing, Oregon’s Jeff Merkley has decided not to run in 2020, a decision that follows the official entry into the race of Bernie Sanders, whom Merkley endorsed in 2016. Democratic voters will probably strongly support the party’s 2020 candidate regardless of whether that candidate identifies as moderate or leftist, and many voters base their primary choices on factors other than policy. But Merkley’s progressive policy record is his most distinguishing feature as a national figure, and Sanders is already much more well-known for holding similar positions; the Vermont senator typically polls not too far behind Biden, a few ticks ahead of the rest of the field. Like Cuomo, Bloomberg, Holder, and Brown, Merkley seems to have concluded that the race already involves someone who replicates his strengths without having critical weaknesses.

One thing this implies is that these Democrats and their advisers do not see Biden’s and Sanders’ candidacies as likely to founder because of their advanced ages. Biden will be 78 on Inauguration Day in 2021, and Sanders will be 79. For someone seeking eight years in the presidency, that’s old! Both would be older before taking office than Ronald Reagan, whose mental state during his later years in the White House is still the subject of debate, was when he finished his second term. While not every octogenarian suffers from dementia, many do, and mental problems are obviously not the only health concerns that become salient when you’re in your 80s. If Biden or Sanders were to win again in 2024, they’d end up being older during their presidencies than Ruth Bader Ginsburg is now; while seemingly mentally sharp, Ginsburg has missed Supreme Court arguments for health reasons, and the potentially destabilizing effects of her death or incapacitation are morbidly regular topics of national discourse.*

It’s hard to blame potential candidates for being shy about bringing up Uncle Bernie’s and Uncle Joe’s ages, though, when 50 percent of combined Democratic poll respondents say they’re ready to vote for the pair. But with so many other candidates, some as young as 37, in the race, the issue does seem likely to come up at some point. Biden and Sanders no doubt have their top people working on table-turning debate bons mots as we speak.

Correction, March 7, 2019: This post originally misspelled Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s last name.