Are Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders too old to be president? Donald Trump—who, at 73, is not much younger than the 76-year-old Biden and the 77-year-old Sanders—thinks so. Asked by reporters back in April if someone can be “too old” to be president, Trump flattered himself. “Well, I think that—I just feel like a young man. I’m so young. I can’t believe it. I’m the youngest person. I am a young, vibrant man. I look at Joe—I don’t know about him. I don’t know…. I would never say anyone is too old, but I know they’re all making me look very young, both in terms of age and I think in terms of energy. I think you people know that better than anybody.”
It was a typically reflexive Trump answer—redirecting criticism that could just as easily be leveled at him—but it did hit at a growing concern. Trump himself was the oldest person ever elected to a first term. Biden and Sanders would also break that record should they win; the just-turned-70 Elizabeth Warren would come close. But Trump’s scribbling enablers aside, Democratic voters don’t seem to mind. Yes, Biden and Sanders have both taken hits in opinion surveys since last week’s debates, but they’ve consistently polled in the top two for most of the year. (That said, polling also suggests that Democrats think their Platonic ideal of a presidential candidate is about two decades younger than Biden and Sanders.)
At the first Democratic debate, Representative Eric Swalwell (who just happens to be 38 years old) made the most explicit argument yet that the party needed a new generation of leaders—at least one of whom undoubtedly bears an uncanny resemblance to Eric Swalwell. “I was six years old when a presidential candidate came to the California Democratic Convention and said it’s time to pass the torch to a new generation of Americans. That candidate was then-Senator Joe Biden,” said Swallwell staring across the Miami stage at his balding opponent.
“Joe Biden was right when he said that 32 years ago. He is still right today,” the California Dem continued. “If we are going to solve the issue, pass the torch. If we are going to solve climate chaos, pass the torch. If we want to end gun violence and solve student debt, pass the torch.”
Biden, at that point still affecting the nonchalance of a clear frontrunner, shrugged it off with a pivot. “There is a lot we can do, but we have to make continuing education available for everyone so everyone can compete in the twenty-first century,” Biden said. “We are not doing that now.”
But Swalwell’s comments have lived on, even if his candidacy has shrunk back into single-digit desperation again. Sanders was asked about the age jab over the weekend by NPR. “It is what you stand for,” Sanders said in response. “I think age is certainly something that people should look at. They should look at everything. Look at the totality of the person. Do you trust that person? Is that person honest? Do you agree with that person? What is the record of that person? But just [to] say, you know, ‘I’m gonna vote for somebody because they are 35 or 40, and I’m not going to vote for somebody in their seventies,’ I think that’s a pretty superficial answer.”
On one hand, what else was he supposed to say? If you’re a 77-year-old guy who’s running for president and you’re asked if you’re too old, you’re going to say “no” or you wouldn’t be there in the first place.
But Sanders’s answer also effectively makes the case for an old guy running for president. What matters isn’t if you’re too old, it’s if your ideas are. Biden has been hammered repeatedly for retrograde comments and positions on abortion and race; his polling numbers have suffered as a result. Sanders, meanwhile, has continued to connect with young voters, albeit not to the same extent as in 2016—his fellow septuagenarian Elizabeth Warren appears to be splitting the vote.
Swalwell’s “generational change” argument gets one thing right: People like Biden bear some responsibility for the state of affairs, given his long service in the United States Senate. (The same applies, but to a much lesser extent, to Sanders.) Biden’s political argument, moreover, has been about returning to a past that, as the recent controversy over segregation and busing proves, was not particularly great for many Americans. Sanders’s campaign, meanwhile, has been about advocating for a political revolution. There are physical concerns about the demands of the presidency, but that should be it. There’s no such thing as too old to be president—within reason, of course—just too out of touch.