When he was running for reelection in 1984, Ronald Reagan sought to make light of the fact that, at 73, he was the oldest major-party presidential nominee in American history.
“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,” he famously joked at a debate with Walter Mondale, the Democratic nominee, who was 56 at the time.
Reagan would have no reason to worry today. Both of the likely major party nominees in 2024 are significantly older than he was at the end of his first term: President Biden is 80, while Donald Trump is 77.
Congressional leaders are even older: Sen. Mitch McConnell is 81; Sen. Dianne Feinstein is 90; former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who just announced she is running for another term, is 83.
Increasingly, the United States appears to be a gerontocracy, or a government led by the elderly.
Read more on Yahoo News:Have you heard the one about the old president? Well, Biden has a joke, from NBC News
A retirement home on Capitol Hill
The sight of a diminished Feinstein, who returned to the Senate after a serious bout of shingles, as well as the footage of Senate Minority Leader McConnell briefly losing the ability to speak during a press conference, were vivid and concerning, reminders that American legislators are in many cases much older than the people who elected them.
The average age of an American is nearly 39, much higher than it used to be — but much lower than the average age of a member of Congress, which is 59.
How did it get this way?
For one, people are living a lot longer, which means they are working into old age too.
Then there is the power — and benefits — of incumbency. Once in office, few lawmakers want to leave, even if they spend most of their time denouncing Washington. Sen. Mitt Romney recently admitted as much in an interview with the Atlantic: "Most of us have gone out and tried playing golf for a week, and it was like, 'Okay, I'm gonna kill myself,' " he confessed.
Read more on Yahoo News:With Feinstein set to retire, these are the oldest lawmakers in Congress, via Bloomberg
Too old for the Oval Office?
With a combined age of 157, Biden and Trump offer voters seeking younger leadership little choice. Which is why both have been urged to step aside by high-profile figures in their respective parties.
In a widely shared column that made national news, Washington Post columnist David Ignatius, whom Biden is said to admire, urged the president not to run. Ignatius had no problem with Biden's record, which he described as a "remarkable string of wins."
His argument against reelection was more straightforward: "Biden's age isn't just a Fox News trope; it's been the subject of dinner-table conversations across America this summer." Ignatius pointed to a poll that had two out of three Democrats doubting he could be effective for four more years.
Trump enjoys a degree of loyalty from the Republican base that insulates him from such attacks — but that does not protect him entirely. Some of his rivals have tried to raise the issue of age without alienating his base.
"The presidency is not a job for someone that's 80 years old," Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who just turned 45, told CBS Evening News earlier this month. "We need an energetic president." Nikki Haley, who is 51, has similarly said that it is "time for a new generation of leadership."
Most Americans think there should be an age limit for presidential candidates. Yet they also seem intent on nominating Biden and Trump, who are both well above any such conceivable limit.
Read more on Yahoo News:How did we get a 2024 rematch that no one wants?, via Politico
A dissenting view
But if wisdom comes with age, maybe being governed by the elderly is not so bad? That's the argument Los Angeles Times columnist Michael Hiltzik made in a recent column, writing that "the gerontocracy critique" is counterproductive because it "threatens to deprive us of our most experienced leaders" and "could remove from our political and economic structures men and women who have spent decades learning about the world and offering the wisdom born of long professional experience."
Read more on Yahoo News: Age and politics: Americans test boundaries, via the Christian Science Monitor