The L.A. Times Nicholas Goldberg asked timely question before dawn yesterday: Are Joe Biden and Dianne Feinstein too old to do their jobs? “Feinstein, who turned 89 last week,” he wrote, “has kicked off a heated national debate by refusing to step down from her job even as people begin to clamor about her age and competence… Incumbency turns out to be a very pleasant place, and power an aphrodisiac that is difficult to give up— to the point that the word ‘gerontocracy’ has suddenly become common.” All true, but perhaps more important is how old people whose lives revolve around their positions and jobs fear— rightly— that they will be without an identity if they “move on.”
Goldberg sees the problem. “In Feinstein’s case, it is especially so because of the parade of reports on her cognitive diminishment” with a “rapidly deteriorating” memory and increasing “befuddlement.” And as if a loss of cognitive skills were serious enough for someone in a crucial position, Goldberg also noted that “we all become slower, less relevant and less attuned to the changing world around us.”
And he worries that two slow old men, Trump and Biden are thinking about running for president again. “Call me ageist, but I’m not the only one worrying about this. A recent article said that Democratic leaders all over the country are concerned about Biden’s age, vigor and political viability and that many don’t want him to seek another term. If he were to win, he would be 86 at the end of it. Trump would be 82. A recent YouGov poll found that 58% of Americans support an age limit for elected officials.”
Right now 33 seantors— a third of the body— are over 70 and only one, Jon Ossoff, is under 40. “Studies suggest that between 15% and 25% of people over 65 suffer from mild cognitive impairment. But physical problems also need to be considered… One way to address these problems would be to enact an upper age limit for public officials. The Constitution already sets lower limits. You have to be at least 25 to become a member of the House of Representatives, 30 to be a senator and 35 to be president… Or maybe that’s going too far. Maybe we don’t want to force out people who are still performing at a high level. In that case, we could simply require candidates or sitting government officials to undergo a thorough nonpartisan medical review to assess their physical and mental health after, say, 70.”
Yesterday Philip Bump followed a similar, but not identical, path in his Washington Post column, The last of the institutionalizes are the leaders of the Democratic Party. Referencing Biden’s disappointing speech after the Dobbs v Jackson decision overturned Roe, exhorting people to vote, Bump wrote that “The response to his speech was not effusive. For one thing, voters could be forgiven for remembering that they had, in fact, voted in support of candidates who would protect Roe: They’d done so in 2020 to elevate Biden to the presidency and to secure a Democrat-run House; they’d done so in 2016, 2018, 2020 and 2021 to give Democrats a majority in the Senate. For another thing, Biden and other Democratic leaders were seen as (or admitted to) being less outraged about the decision than their party’s base, particularly its younger arm. An interview aired on MSNBC captured the tension between the party’s leadership and its base.
The White House was pressed on Biden’s response over the weekend. Press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre was asked whether Biden supported “reforming the court,” a phrasing that often implies expanding its size to reshape its composition.
“That is something that the President does not agree with,” Jean-Pierre replied. “That is not something that he wants to do.”
She pointed to a commission that Biden had convened to consider how to potentially reshape the court, a commission that released a final report in December. It fretted that changes to the court would erode the perceived legitimacy of the body, as measured either by public opinion polling or willingness to comply with its determinations. Public opinion polling, incidentally, shows that confidence in the court is at a historic low and that the decision to overturn Roe was seen as political. But hobbling forward with a damaged institution was seen as preferable or equal to changing it.
This encapsulates how the leadership of the Democratic Party appears to view the current political moment. In part because its leaders have been on the job for so long— Biden has been in politics with limited interruption since 1973, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi since 1987 and Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer since 1981— they retain some obvious confidence that the system will work out its own kinks.
That’s probably been reinforced by a period of American politics in which former president Donald Trump and his allies have repeatedly targeted the solidity of those same institutions. The left has somewhat incongruously been pushed into the role of defending the establishment [the definition of conservatism] as the right exploits its loopholes— making the left less likely to embrace similar exploits in favor of demonstrating fealty to How Things Ought To Work.
We can look at the process that led to Roe being overturned to bolster the point about how the right has of late been exercising power. There’s Trump himself, of course, someone for whom institutional integrity and the norms of exercising power were always meaningless. That he arrived in the White House as an outsider meant that he had no qualms about ignoring the way things were done— to his supporters’ glee but to the legitimate consternation of many tracking the stability of American democracy. (That he arrived thanks to the electoral college’s allocation of power is, of course, a well-established issue in itself.)
Trump appointed a Supreme Court justice, Neil Gorsuch, to fill a seat held open by then-Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who in 2016 cited the principle of “because we can” to prevent Barack Obama’s nominee, Merrick Garland, from filling the seat. When Gorsuch’s nomination stalled in the Senate, the Republican majority simply carved court nominations from the filibuster and moved forward. In 2018, Trump nominated Brett Kavanaugh to the bench, a nomination sealed thanks to the support of Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME)— who now says that she was misled by Kavanaugh in private conversations. Oh well!
When Ruth Bader Ginsburg died a few weeks before the 2020 election, McConnell and Trump moved forward quickly with confirming her replacement, Amy Coney Barrett, despite McConnell blocking Garland far earlier in the 2016 cycle. Despite McConnell’s contrived rationales for the difference between the two situations, he was acting consistently: “Because we can.” And then Roe was gone.
McConnell was shunted to the minority shortly before Biden took office, but the majority Democrats didn’t play similar hardball. This was in part because they were hobbled by two moderate members from their razor-thin majority who rejected any changes to the filibuster. But it was also clearly in part because there was a real, entrenched belief that How Things Ought To Work is how things ought to work.
As a PG-13 version of a viral 2018 tweet put it: “The last decade has been the Democrats clinging onto the rule book going ‘but a dog can’t play basketball!’ while a dog dunks on us over and over.”
For younger Democrats, this is inexplicable. This is a generation that has been directly confronted with a number of dire threats: the growing effects of climate change, mass shootings in schools and the demonstrated dangers of domestic extremism. Younger Americans would be forgiven for viewing the response they’ve observed as tepid, on a good day. Yes, Biden signed new gun legislation into law this weekend— legislation that allows elected officials from both parties to talk about having accomplished something more than nothing but which was probably offset by the Supreme Court’s decision limiting concealed-carry permitting rules the day the gun bill passed.
One of the things about institutional power is that it requires the perspective of time. Younger Americans may not fully appreciate the value in building collective power through party organizations or in bolstering consistent governmental systems. But those who control the power of those institutions are at risk of misunderstanding it in a different way: as essential and of foremost concern.
The current generation of Democratic leaders grew up in a period in which the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s assertion that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice” was seen as prescriptive. That if you simply press forward, enduring some setbacks, you’d eventually get to a better, more just place. They lived through a period in which that was often true: Biden was 23, Pelosi 25 and Schumer 15 when the Voting Rights Act passed in 1965. Things got better from there, often thanks to patient incrementalism. Young people are less sanguine about such a pattern continuing, particularly as Republicans— concerned about long-term political patterns— work the loopholes so effectively.
Hearing Biden’s assertion about how well he knew the process during his speech last week made me think of a line from the movie No Country for Old Men.
“If the rule you followed brought you to this,” Anton Chigurh asks, “of what use was the rule?”
Increasingly, Democratic voters are unsatisfied with “because rules are important” as a response.
Jason Call, the progressive candidate running for Congress in Northwest Washington, “We are here experiencing this assault on the human rights of every marginalized group in the country precisely because the Democratic Party has refused to stand up for them with any kind of seriousness. And now the ‘moderates’ are upset with young progressives criticizing Biden’s lack of gravitas because they are worried that it might impact Biden’s re-election in 2024. I’ve got news for them-- shaming young people who are trying to get this administration to do something, *anything*, beyond say ‘Vote Harder’ is not a good look. Not when Biden calls Mitch McConnell a ‘man of honor.’ Not when Pelosi goes to stump for an anti-abortion, pro-NRA corporatist *literally the same week the impending decision was leaked and the Uvalde shooting* against a young progressive Latina. I cannot fathom the hubris. The sept/octogenarian Democratic leadership ... Pelosi, Hoyer, Feinstein, Schumer, et al...all rich lawyer/business types, have no, none, zero, nada idea what growing up in this economy is like for most people, and I don't mind saying that all of these folks are going to be long gone by the time the climate emergency really starts tearing apart the social order. Young people are scared, anxious, and angry and Democratic leadership has no answers for them."
If there is one top tier Senate candidate who isn't ossified in his thinking this year-- don't look for establishment hacks like Ryan (OH), Beasely (NC) or Demings (FL)-- it would be Missouri populist and former Marine officer Lucas Kunce. In a letter to Missouri voters last yesterday, he wrote that "Congress had more than a month to permanently protect the right to abortion in America by codifying Roe v. Wade before the Supreme Court struck it down. But instead of taking action, corporate-funded Democrats like Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema refused to get rid of the filibuster— the only obstacle standing in our way. When I’m in the U.S. Senate, I’ll fight like hell to kill the filibuster and protect abortion access nationwide. I’ll stand up to the corrupt elites obsessed with dividing our communities and controlling people’s lives. And I’ll always be a voice for real, everyday Missourians— not some corporate executive or party boss... America isn’t free if its citizens can’t make decisions about their own bodies and their own families. And that’s what’s at stake here— freedom, something hundreds of thousands of Americans have died to defend. Years ago, I deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan where individuals had no power over their lives and bodies. I saw it first-hand. That’s not a country I want to live in, and it’s certainly not the America I signed up to defend. Congress has a mandate to protect American citizens and defend our freedoms. And you know what? They don’t even have to risk their lives to do it. All they have to do is get rid of the filibuster and protect Americans’ right to get an abortion by codifying Roe v. Wade. Anyone who isn’t willing to defend our freedoms should get the hell out of our way."