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POLITICS: Campaigns

Age was issue for Ronald Reagan in 1980, will be for Hillary Clinton in 2016

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Politics,Beltway Confidential,Opinion,Byron York,Hillary Clinton,2016 Elections,Campaigns,Ronald Reagan

Some journalists are pushing back against the suggestion that Hillary Clinton's age — nearly 70 on Inauguration Day 2017 — could be a factor in the next presidential race. "How is this Hillary age question even an issue?" NBC's Chuck Todd tweeted on Friday. "She'll be same age in 2016 as Reagan was in 1980; oh, and we live longer and healthier now." Discussion of Clinton's age, Todd concluded, is "one of those classic made-up topics" that politicos discuss when there's nothing more important to talk about.

National Journal jumped in the conversation last week with an article headlined, "Why You Can't Compare Hillary Clinton's Age to Ronald Reagan's; Yes, she'd be the age he was upon taking office. But no, that's not relevant." Authors Stephanie Stamm and Patrick Reis wrote that what is important is not Clinton's age but her life expectancy at the time she would assume the presidency. "Clinton's life expectancy … projects the would-be president living to age 86," Stamm and Reis wrote. "That means Clinton would live a full 17 years after taking office, more than enough time to serve out two terms." Therefore, they concluded, any age comparison between Clinton and Reagan — who lived 23 years after taking office — would be "nonsensical."

Two problems. The first is that the National Journal article focused on whether Clinton can be expected to stay alive long enough to serve two terms if she were elected president. But having a pulse is not the standard for presidential performance; being up to the job is. There's no doubt Reagan was slowing down in his final two years in office, and then suffered from Alzheimer's during his post-presidency.

Also, much was made of Bob Dole's age when he ran for president in 1996. Dole would have been 73 upon taking office and is still alive 17 years later at age 90. Does that mean he would have been up to the job in a second term at age 80? Unclear. And of course, age was an issue for John McCain, who would have been 72 upon taking office had he won the presidency in 2008. Would McCain have been able to perform at the highest level until 80? Again, unclear.

The second problem is with Todd's point. It's reasonable to argue that, given the Reagan experience, Republicans can't make much of an issue about Clinton's age in 2016. But that overlooks the fact that Reagan's age was an issue in 1980, when the nearly 70 year-old Reagan ran against 56 year-old Jimmy Carter. I asked two perceptive writers on Reagan, Steven Hayward, the conservative scholar and author of The Age of Reagan, and Craig Shirley, the conservative activist and author of Rendezvous with Destiny: Ronald Reagan and the Campaign That Changed America and Reagan's Revolution: The Untold Story of the Campaign That Started It All, how the age issue played out in the 1980 campaign.

"Reagan and his campaign team were very conscious of it," Hayward told me via email. Just how conscious comes out in an excerpt from Hayward's Reagan volumes:

His campaign distributed a list of 40 world leaders over the age of 65 (as though reporters would be impressed by the likes of Siaka Stevens, the ruler of Sierra Leone) and 63 members of Congress over age 65. Shortly before the New Hampshire primary in February, Reagan decided the best way to neutralize the issue was to shine a spotlight on it, so he ostentatiously celebrated his 69th birthday at every campaign stop. By the fall, polls found that a majority of Americans regarded Reagan to be more vigorous than Carter — the contrast of the ruddy cowboy versus the collapsing jogger.

Shirley, who was active in conservative politics at the time, suggests the issue was an even bigger hurdle. "The 'age issue,' as it became known beginning in early 1979 developed into an enormous problem for Reagan," he wrote to me:

Reagan was being attacked by Republican operatives supporting Bush, Connally and Crane, most especially over the age issue but also by the media. His manager, John Sears, exacerbated the problem by pulling Reagan off the road for all of 1979, and this played right into rumor-mongering. Eventually, polling showed pluralities and majorities opposed to Reagan based on his age, especially when asked if they would support a man who would be 70 years of age one month after his inauguration.

Reagan finally beat the issue back by overruling Sears and going out and campaigning ferociously and demonstrating his vitality. [George H.W.] Bush had made jogging a centerpiece of his campaign to exhibit his youth and vitality, trying to draw a contrast with Reagan. But once Reagan was engaged, he said "we elected presidents to demonstrate wisdom and maturity and not run foot races." When the Nashua debate was over and Reagan won the New Hampshire primary convincingly, the age issue was largely banished for the rest of the campaign. But let there be no doubt the age issue almost destroyed Reagan’s 1980 campaign.

What will Clinton herself say about the age question? It seems doubtful she'll produce actuarial tables or compare herself to  Reagan. The former Secretary of State instead gave a hint at how she will approach the age question last week, when she discussed what she said were the different effects of aging on men and women. "As men and women age, men are tired of the race, I mean they've been running it since their late teens, they're exhausted," Clinton told an audience at Simmons College. "All they want to do is take a deep breath, they want to retire, they want to play golf, they want to just enjoy life. And women are raring to go because they feel like they've fulfilled their responsibilities, their kids are now on their own, it's now time for them to show what they can do."

Reagan obviously beat the age issue. Hillary Clinton can, too; her words suggest she has already considered the question and come up with at least one argument to defuse it. If she runs, there might well be other arguments. But if there is a Clinton presidential candidacy, age will be an issue — no matter how many of her advocates might want to deny it.

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