OPINION — Julián Castro wants you to know that Joe Biden is old. Or at least it seemed that way during last week’s Democratic presidential debate, when Castro told Biden six times that Biden couldn’t remember what he just said.
“Are you forgetting what you said two minutes ago?” Castro asked the former vice president. “Are you forgetting already what you said just two minutes ago? I mean, I can’t believe that you said two minutes ago that they had to buy in and now you’re saying they don’t have to buy in. You’re forgetting that.”
The day after the debate, Castro insisted that his badgering had only to do with health care policy — whether Biden’s public option plan was an opt-in or an opt-out. (Castro was wrong about what Biden had just said, by the way.) But tell anyone in the 75-plus set that they forgot what they just said, and they’ll understand enough to know you’re calling them senile.
And it wasn’t just a ham-handed attack. For Castro, it was just politically dumb given who the most reliable voters will be in 2020, not to mention who Democratic voters put their faith in coming out of last year’s midterms. Even in today’s woke, millennial moment, young Democratic activists have lionized a handful of leaders to icon status, most of whom were alive during one or several Roosevelt administrations.
Leading party icons
Top among those is Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, 86, the beloved “Notorious RBG.” Even in private conversations, you never hear Democrats ask if Ginsburg is mentally fit enough to be on the Supreme Court. They just want to know that she is at the court every day (and whether they can make it through the planks and pushups that her former-Marine personal trainer put together for her daily workouts.)
Likewise, few crowds on the progressive left are larger, younger, more subversive or more adoring than than those of Sen. Bernie Sanders, who at 78, is a year older than Biden. Is Bernie too old to be president? The Berniecrats don’t think so. Is he too socialist to be president? Maybe, but that’s what the debates are designed to figure out.
What about 79-year-old Speaker Nancy Pelosi? The California Democrat’s brand was so hot last year that the fashion brand Max Mara reissued the red coat Pelosi was seen wearing, along with sunglasses and a satisfied smile, while leaving the West Wing after an Oval Office smackdown of Trump she had just delivered on live TV.
Pelosi’s age did come up last cycle, but only from younger Democratic challengers inside the caucus, who made it clear they wanted their chance to take over leadership and provide a younger face to voters ahead of the midterms. But voters in 2018 didn’t at all seem bothered by the fact that Pelosi and her leadership team were almost 300 years old combined. Democrats took back the House thanks in large part to Pelosi’s fundraising, strategy and execution.
Insult them at your peril
Voters 65 and older were nearly twice as likely to vote last fall as those under 30, boasting a turnout rate of 66 percent compared to 36 percent for 18- to 29-year-olds. And while Donald Trump won voters over 65 by a decisive 7 points in 2016, Democrats reduced the Republicans’ edge among those older voters to just 2 points in their midterm victories two years later.
You probably didn’t hear much about those Democratic gains among older voters in 2018, nor about the issues those voters care about, since Democrats and the media have become focused on the younger, urban, more diverse coalitions they believe will deliver Democratic victories in the future. But Democrats have both an opportunity and, frankly, an obligation to talk more about the government programs that older voters rely on, including Social Security and Medicare, while Trump runs up trillion-dollar deficits and multi-trillion-dollar debts.
While Sanders and Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris all promised to make Medicare available to all Americans, and Warren has proposed paying Social Security recipients $200 more per month, no candidate in any debate so far has explained that the finances of both Medicare and Social Security are already in dire straights. The two programs currently make up 45 percent of federal program expenditures. But trustees estimate that Social Security reserves will be depleted within 16 years, while large portions of Medicare’s reserves will be insolvent within 7 years, a situation The New York Times calls a “slow-moving crisis.” That is the age conversation voters should be hearing from candidates.
If Castro is worried that Biden isn’t mentally fit to be president, that’s a different and legitimate conversation. But he could have just asked Biden that directly, as Henry Threwhitt of The Baltimore Sun did in a presidential debate in 1984, when he asked Ronald Reagan if he would be able to function in a national security crisis since he was already the oldest U.S. president at 73. Reagan famously responded that he had no doubt he would be able to function, adding of his 50-something Democratic opponent, Walter Mondale, “I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit for political purposes my opponent’s youth and inexperience.”
Less well remembered was the rest of Reagan’s answer, quoting Cicero or Seneca, “If it was not for the elders correcting the mistakes of the young, there would be no state.”
As young Castro showed Thursday night, even young candidates make mistakes too.
Patricia Murphy covers national politics for The Daily Beast. Previously, she was the Capitol Hill bureau chief for Politics Daily and founder and editor of Citizen Jane Politics. Follow her on Twitter @1PatriciaMurphy.