Is age an issue in the 2020 presidential campaign?

Most people don’t know this, but President Donald Trump is the oldest person ever elected to a first term as president. He was 70 years old when he was inaugurated (a year older than Ronald Reagan), is 72 years old today, and will be 74 on Election Day of 2020. Were he to win, he will be 78 years old when he leaves office.

Two men who are vying to replace him as president next year are older than he is. Joe Biden will be 77 on Election Day, but 78 by inauguration day. If Biden were elected and served a full term, he would leave office at 82, and if he served two terms, he would leave office at 86.

Bernie Sanders, the quixotic socialist rabble rouser, is going to be 79 years old on Election Day. Were he to win and go on to serve two terms, he could theoretically be in office until he is 87 years old.

Bringing up the issue of age is a fairly dangerous game, particularly for people that are running against older candidates.

This combination of file photos shows former Vice President Joe Biden and President Donald Trump. (AP Photo/File)

The last candidate to really try to make age an issue on the presidential level was Walter Mondale in 1984. Running against incumbent President Ronald Reagan, a whisper campaign had begun questioning Reagan’s stamina and mental faculties.

Reagan was already the oldest president to have ever served, being 73 at the time, and he had looked tired, confused and lethargic in the first televised debate. Mondale’s people had gleefully pounced on the issue, and started talking about it on the campaign trail.

This was pretty understandable on Mondale’s part. He was having a hard time gaining traction against the popular Reagan, and 22 points down in October, he was desperate for basically anything that could have changed the momentum in the race.

The problem with that strategy is that it can backfire. Badly.

Which is exactly what happened. In the Oct. 21 debate with Mondale, Reagan was hit with the question from Henry Trewhitt, who was the diplomatic correspondent at the time for The Baltimore Sun.

“You already are the oldest president in history,” Trewhitt began, “and some of your staff say you were tired after your most recent encounter with Mr. Mondale. I recall, yes, that President Kennedy, who had to go for days on end with very little sleep during the Cuba missile crisis. Is there any doubt in your mind that you would be able to function in such circumstances?”

Reagan shot back, with deadly timing and deadpan delivery. “Not at all, Mr. Trewhitt and I want you to know that also I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit for political purposes my opponent’s youth and inexperience.”

The camera then cut to a side view of Reagan cooly sipping a glass of water as the audience roared, also catching a laughing Mondale.

“That was really the end of my campaign that night, I think,” Mondale would later say.

It was the end of the campaign because legitimate questions of Reagan’s age were effectively neutered by the combination of his energetic performance in the second debate, and the deadliness of a well-timed joke. Reagan, to the public at large, didn’t seem so old after all.

Likewise, Trump is unlikely to be hurt by the age issue. Not because it isn’t fair to bring up, or that his age isn’t worth being concerned about, but because he just doesn’t feel all that old. He’s still full of bluster and energy and isn’t likely to slow down much by Election Day.

Sanders and Biden, though, seem to feel their age a lot more, particularly Biden. Watching his announcement video, I was struck by how old he looked and sounded, in contrast to his time only a couple years prior when he was vice president.

But is that observation in bounds? Is the fear of advanced age worth worrying about? Should we care? Do we care?

I’m not sure I have the answer to those questions, but here are a few things I do know. The average lifespan of an American man is 76.9 years. Only six presidents have ever lived into their nineties, and all of those men typically left office in their fifties or sixties. Health challenges increase exponentially with age. The presidency has a tendency to age the people who serve at a greatly exaggerated pace.

Given those factors, it is hard to argue that it is worthy of discussion and consideration. But will anyone risk the deadly joke and cool sip of water crushing their chances against these men? Only time will tell.

Matthew Gagnon

About Matthew Gagnon

Matthew Gagnon, of Yarmouth, is the Chief Executive Officer of the Maine Heritage Policy Center, a free market policy think tank based in Portland. Prior to Maine Heritage, he served as a senior strategist for the Republican Governors Association in Washington, D.C. Originally from Hampden, he has been involved with Maine politics for more than a decade.