How to Navigate the Age Debate
Some thoughts on how to talk about Biden's age with the voters in your life
If you have been unfortunate enough to talk about politics in the last 96 hours, you have certainly spoken about Joe Biden’s age and the questions raised about his memory by Robert Hur, the Republican Special Counsel who investigated Biden’s handling of classified information. Democrats are equal parts angry and anxious. Republicans are triumphant, and the less engaged voters we need to win are confused and curious.
I understand the anger at the petulant hackery from Hur (and Garland for naively appointing him). I share frustration with the way the media has covered Biden’s age and treated it akin to Trump’s dangerous demagoguery and rampant criminality. But in the end, the press will not change their stripes. Trust me, as someone who has fought with more reporters and encountered more transgressions than most people walking this planet, the political press is who they are. They will not cover politics the way we want them to. No matter how many times we tweet at them, email them, or threaten to withhold our subscription dollars. If there was no change after 2016, it will never come.
While often justified, our anger at the media can divert energy away from the goal. In an election this close, we need every moment to be spent on constructive rather than cathartic things.
I know Team Biden has spent endless hours thinking about how to win the age argument that will be centerstage at several junctures of the campaign. But all of us play a role too. My operating theory for this election is that, because of the ongoing collapse of the traditional media and the social media platforms moving away from politics, the most consequential political conversations will happen off the big platforms. The frontlines of politics will not be on Facebook but in group chats, text chains, and personal conversations that occur with our friends and family.
That idea is the animating principle of this newsletter. Democrats need to give our supporters the same message guidance we give to our candidates so they can persuade the people in their lives. If you find this piece helpful, please share it with your network:
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With all of that in mind, here are some thoughts on how to have that conversation with your friends and family. These conversations will not be easy. You won’t persuade someone on the first try, but these are some guideposts to help.
1. Biden’s Age is a Legitimate Issue
Voters are concerned about Biden’s age. This is not a media creation or the result of aggressive messaging from Right-wing propaganda outlets like Fox News (althougth both have contributed to the problem). According to an ABC News/Ipsos poll released on Sunday, 86% of Americans think Joe Biden is too old to be President. In most polls, concerns about Biden’s age have grown. In NBC News’ polling, the number of voters expressing concerns about Biden’s age has increased 8 points since June of last year and 25 points since the 2020 election. Most of these voters do not watch Fox News or see the altered or out-of-context TikToks that make Biden seem too old for the job. They simply express concern about an 81-year-old serving another five years in one of the world’s most stressful and demanding jobs. It’s a common sense reaction; we shouldn’t dismiss the concerns or pretend like they are the product of bad news coverage.
2. Age = Experience and Wisdom
I have seen a decent amount of polling on addressing the age issue, and, to be honest, there are no silver bullets. No magic one-liners or turns of phrase that make the concerns disappear. Some things that poll particularly poorly include:
Referring to attacks on Biden’s “ageism;”
Citing older celebrities like Clint Eastwood, Harrison Ford, and the Rolling Stones as evidence that 81 isn’t that old;
Focusing on Kamala Harris’ possible step into the presidency (this brings up the idea of a catastrophic event for Biden).
The best message is also the most accurate. I would recommend something like this:
Yes, President Biden is older, but with age comes wisdom and experience. President Biden’s experience is why he has been able to pass historic legislation to improve the economy, prevent gun violence, lower the cost of prescription drugs, and help veterans in a narrowly divided Congress. President Biden’s steady leadership stands in stark contrast to the chaos, criminality and incompetence of Donald Trump.
This message is more of a method to survive the question than win the argument. It’s a way to take the age question and pivot into a conversation about Biden’s accomplishments and Trump’s flaws.
3. Show, Don’t Tell
I strongly believe we must address the age issue. In many ways, it’s the crux of the election. If Biden assuages concerns about his age among his 2020 voters and others who disapprove of Trump, he’ll likely win the race. If he doesn’t, Trump will return to the White House.
There is not much President Biden or any of us can say that will solve the problem. That’s why suggestions that the President give a speech or kick off a national conversation about his age are the nonsensical ramblings of attention-seekers. This is one of those times when it makes sense to heed the old adage of “Show, don’t tell.” The President can ease concerns about his age by being seen doing his job with sufficient energy and vigor. As Doug Sosnik, a former advisor to Bill Clinton argued in the New York Times:
In order for Mr. Biden to steady his campaign and overcome doubts that Mr. Hur’s words will exacerbate, the president needs a strategy to at least neutralize these concerns about his age and mental competency. Pretending that this is not a problem or trying to joke his way through it will not work, even if he had the communication gifts of Mr. Reagan. Instead, Mr. Biden should emphasize that age alone is not what counts; it’s the wisdom of his ideas. And contrast his forward-looking views on climate change, abortion rights and reasonable gun control with Mr. Trump’s backward views on these issues.
Good news! In a race against Trump, the threshold of acceptability that President Biden must cross is refreshingly low. On the public stage, the moments when President Biden is energetic and vigorous outnumber the moments when he seems tired and elderly. However, the bad moments go viral and the good moments rarely break through. The White House needs more of those good moments in more high-profile situations. But we have a role to play too. Everyone can help amplify the best clips to our networks.
4. Reframe the Choice
This election is not a referendum on whether an 81-year-old should serve another four years as President. The election is a choice between a decent, accomplished 81-year-old man who cares about you and an incompetent, chaotic 77-year-old criminal who only cares about himself. Focusing only on fixing Biden’s problems has a massive opportunity cost. In some ways, Trump’s trials may be a bigger concern for voters than Biden’s age. As pollster Jeff Horwitt, who helped conduct the NBC News poll, points out:
Yes, voters are more concerned about Biden’s age than Trump’s trials. But Biden is still getting 17% among voters who have major concerns about his age, while just 10% of voters who have major concerns about Trump’s trials are voting for him.
Democrats must assuage concerns about Biden’s age, but if we obsess over it at the expense of making the case against Trump, it will be for naught.