Let’s begin with two matters of historical fact. They are indisputable, uncontroversial — and they define the dilemma for Democrats in the next presidential election with stark clarity.
First: When Ronald Reagan ran for president in 1980, his age was a serious challenge. If he won, he’d be the oldest elected president ever. Eight years later, when he left the White House after a second term with clear signs of declining abilities, he was younger than Joe Biden was the day he began his presidency.
Second: Since Alben Barkley failed to secure the 1952 Democratic presidential nomination, every Democratic vice president has eventually wound up as the party’s presidential nominee. None of them ever lost a fight for the nomination once they declared (though we’ll never know if Hubert Humphrey would have defeated Robert Kennedy in 1968).
As Democrats begin to think about 2024 — if only to cover their eyes from the likely train wreck that the midterms promise — their thoughts can be summarized simply: Will he? Should he? And if not him, who?
In a recent New York magazine piece, Gabriel Debenedetti gathered up the hopes (a few), fears (many) and wide-ranging speculation about a potential Biden reelection campaign. It provided not just yeas and nays to the “Will he? Should he?” questions, but a host of possible replacement candidates that the great majority of Americans have never heard of: Gov. Roy Cooper of North Carolina! Gov. Jared Polis of Colorado! Gov. Phil Murphy of New Jersey, fresh from a near defeat at the hands of a dyspeptic electorate! From other corners come calls for Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer or former New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu or Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo.
All of these suggestions are based on the premise that Vice President Kamala Harris is too damaged politically to be the party’s presidential nominee. Debenedetti notes that “her approval rating is 15 points below where Biden stood at this stage in Barack Obama’s first term and 11 below Mike Pence under Trump,” and that she has been burdened by “the consistently negative tone of her coverage.”
Now let’s return to the two facts I began with.
The first tells us that Biden’s age is a problem far more serious than the one Reagan faced more than 42 years ago. When Reagan first ran, he was — or at least appeared to be — in fine physical condition. (Here’s what he looked and sounded like when he began his fall campaign.) But his mental faculties were challenged through the race, as reporters cited his conflating of fiction with fact, and his inability at times to remember his own proposals. By the time he ran for reelection, those doubts grew louder — especially after his first debate, when he stumbled through a number of answers. That debate with Walter Mondale prompted doubts about his acuity even in conservative outlets like the Wall Street Journal editorial page. He deflected those worries in his second debate with his famous quip that he would not attack Walter Mondale for his “youth and inexperience.” It got laughs, but there were enough concerns during his second term that his aides began to discreetly ponder the need to invoke the 25th Amendment’s tools when facing presidential disability.
With Biden, the signs of age are more performative than substantive; a slowing of movement, occasional confusion over words (a lifelong by-product of stuttering), and the determination of Fox News and other adversaries to portray — sometimes with creative video editing — every verbal stumble as conclusive evidence of dementia or cognitive decline. But overhanging all of that is the first digit of the age he will be if he runs again at nearly 82. No candidate has ever run, and no president has ever served, at age 80 or above.
It’s possible to cite any number of figures who were fully capable well into old, even very old, age. Pablo Casals was composing and conducting into his 90’s; Roger Angell was turning out elegant prose poems to baseball as he neared his centennial; John Paul Stevens was delivering sharp Supreme Court opinions at 90.
But the presidency is a very different question. The pitiless demands of the office age pretty much everyone who holds the job (just compare pictures of Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Obama, three of our youngest chief executives, at the beginning and end of their tenures). As a personal matter: I am just a few months younger than Biden. I like to think I am more or less in possession of most of my faculties (sarcastic responses can be Tweeted to me @greenfield64). But the demands on me, and my contemporaries, are several orders of magnitude less than they are for a president. The inexorable impact of age — “senior moments” with aphasic-like groping with the proper names of a movie star or author, the increased power of gravity — afflict more or less all of us at this point in our lives. Which is why, even among friends most alarmed at the prospect of a second Trump presidency, there is real discomfort about the notion of president who would be 86 at the end of his term. Among the citizenry at large, according to the Wall Street Journal, less than a third think Biden will run again).
Which brings us to the significance of the second fact with which this piece began. The invocation of a baker’s dozen of possible Democratic contenders is fueled by the notion that Kamala Harris cannot be an effective presidential candidate. It may not be fair, but her lower-than-Biden approval numbers and implosion as a 2020 candidate, her detractors say, demand an alternative.