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September 1, 2023

Yes, Washington Is a Gerontocracy. And It’s Our Fault.

The reality is that when it matters, voters across the country love the old-timers.

For the second time in recent months, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell froze in the middle of a press conference, staring off in silence before being saved by an aide. The episode was widely covered by the establishment media — and fairly so, considering his position and power.

It would be nice, and ethical, if the same level of scrutiny was applied to our cognitively compromised president, who regularly wanders off to shake hands with invisible leprechauns, struggles to navigate stairs and forgets the name of his cabinet members.

In any event, it’s understandable that people are getting annoyed by the advanced age of our top leaders. Still, I don’t think age limits, as some have suggested, would be very useful.

For one thing, there is value in experience. There’s little evidence that younger politicians are better equipped to govern. It’s more likely, judging from recent events, that they’re going to be just as injudicious, partisan and perhaps less inclined to respect the constitutional order. Politicians aren’t here to drive modernity or bring us new technologies (or social media accounts with lots of followers); they are here to (lightly) govern the nation within the law. Is a Sen. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez or Marjorie Taylor Greene going to prove better stewards of those republican values? Color me skeptical.

Now, there are clear cases where age should be disqualifying. California’s Sen. Dianne Feinstein, 90, has reportedly relinquished power of attorney to her daughter. If a person can’t be trusted to legally handle their own life decisions, how can they be entrusted with the power to make decisions over your life? That seems like a reasonable standard to push someone out of office. Then again, even a person in a coma would be better for the country than Adam Schiff or Katie Porter, so you see the problem.

Obviously, mental acuity diminishes with age, but people don’t die in sequential order, and they don’t mature in identical ways. There are plenty of 80-year-olds who are sharp and plenty of 60-year-olds who already struggle. Age minimums for office, as James Madison (probably) argued in The Federalist No. 62, make sense because a person gains a “greater extent of information and stability of character” as they age. Most 25-year-olds shouldn’t even be voting. But a maximum cutoff age is completely arbitrary. It would make more sense to administer a cognitive test (maybe throw in a civics test) than an age limit. I’m sorry, no one is going to convince me that Sen. Chuck Grassley is less competent or knowledgeable at 89 than, say, Sen. Chris Murphy at age 50.

All of this is theoretical anyway, as it would take a constitutional amendment to institute age maximums. Because guess what? A solution already exists. Vote them out. We act as if these septuagenarians and octogenarians have been thrust upon us by some unknown force. We put them there. If three-quarters of voters truly believed President Joe Biden is too old for office, they would find someone else to run. But Democrats would rather pretend that the president, not exactly Cicero in his best days, is an intellectual and physical dynamo because they want to hold onto power. Deep down they know no one in their right mind thinks a fresh-faced Mayor Pete is any better.

The reality is that when it matters, voters across the country love the old-timers — perhaps because they are known quantities or maybe they bring home the money or maybe people genuinely like them. If they didn’t, none of them would be in Washington.


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