The U.S. Has a Serious Political Problem No One Wants To Talk About
Let’s face it: the odds of a medical emergency striking the US Senate at any given moment is pretty high. And we shouldn’t be surprised. The highest levels of American politics are dominated by people in their 70s and 80s. And quite frankly, the entire U.S. government bears an uncomfortable resemblance to a nursing home.
From the Senate to the presidency to — perhaps most strikingly — the Supreme Court, top positions are held more and more by people in their 70s or above. Yes. our politicians are too old, and that’s becoming a serious problem.
Last month, in one of the most dramatic moments in the Senate in years, 80-year-old John McCain rallied from surgery and a diagnosis of brain cancer to cast a vote that killed the Republican efforts to repeal Obamacare — for now.
For all the drama, we shouldn’t be surprised that another medical emergency interferes with Senate business again. Disruptive medical tragedies are an unavoidable statistical consequence of this trend, as is the risk that key political actors will develop cognitive impairment. There’s no easy solution to the problem, but it demands a frank conversation.
McCain’s diagnosis was hardly the first time senatorial health played a key role in the partisan battles over health reform. The Affordable Care Act passed in the first place because 92-year-old Sen. Robert Byrd was wheeled out onto the Senate floor for three vital votes in 2009. And Byrd’s votes were especially critical as a result of Sen. Edward Kennedy’s poignant struggle with the brain cancer that killed him, at 77, in August 2009.
Sen. Kennedy was replaced by Republican Scott Brown, depriving Democrats of a filibuster-proof majority and therefore almost destroying the centerpiece achievement of the Obama presidency.
Reforms such as term limits for Senators and justices could help with the problem, but it’s just as important to try to shift societal norms to take more seriously some elemental realities of human aging.
We must note, however, that blanket judgments about older politicians are of course indefensible. Many of our older leaders have more skill and intellectual firepower than most of us will ever have. Feel free to debate Bernie Sanders on healthcare policies if you doubt me.
Still, people who do not watch Congress regularly can be taken aback by just how advanced in age — and sometimes evidently slowed — people at the pinnacle of power can be.
Rumors regularly hit Washington about the cognitive function of various senators. McCain’s confused questioning of former FBI Director James Comey led to much commentary, before his diagnosis, as did Sen. Orrin Hatch’s parroting of a young aide’s talking points in a colloquy with Sen. Claire McCaskill.
Then there’s the presidency. Ronald Reagan’s age at inauguration, 69, caused some concern — at the time he was the oldest to take the job — but Donald Trump is 70. Vox’s Matt Yglesias has argued that Sen. Bernie Sanders is now the Democratic frontrunner for 2020. The three leading Democratic contenders — Elizabeth Warren, Joe Biden, and Sanders — would be 71, 78, and 79, respectively, on Inauguration Day 2021.
Some medical experts have expressed concern that President Trump is experiencing visible cognitive impairment: They say it’s reflected in declining verbal complexity in his responses to media interviews. Yes, there is more than a whiff of politicking in some of this discussion. But this remains a legitimate issue, especially in light of similar assessments made regarding President Reagan, who later succumbed to Alzheimer’s.
I’m confident that Biden and Sanders could run effective and compelling presidential campaigns. I’m much more worried about their capacity to continue to perform at a high level over the full course of their presidencies. For that reason, I also want presidential candidates of every age to openly discuss how they plan to manage their health issues as they assume the weightiest job in the world.
We should address these matters without rancor or cruelty, but also without euphemism or undue reticence.
Americans used to be more inclined toward youthful representation. What happened? What do you think?