To me, one of the most striking moments in the recent Democratic presidential debates came after the debates. After the second debate on June 28, a TV news reporter asked Bernie Sanders what seemed a natural question – how did he feel about other candidates trying to use his age against him?
If you missed that debate, the youngest candidates (Pete Buttigieg, 37, and Eric Swalwell, 38) sought to score some political points against the oldest candidates (Sanders, 77, and Joe Biden, 76) by making some not-so-subtle references to their age.
“It’s time to pass the torch to a new generation of Americans,” Swalwell said. Rubbing salt into the wound, Swalwell revealed that he was quoting a younger Joe Biden. Ouch!
Buttigieg was a bit more indirect. First he reminded the audience that he was the youngest candidate. He drove the point home in his closing statement, saying that “the decisions we make in the next three or four years are going to decide how the next 30 or 40 go” and that he wants to be able to “look back” and be happy the results. The implication seemed to be that he will be around in 40 years so he has more at stake than some other candidates. (Gee, who could be talking about?)
The pundits agreed that Swalwell and Buttigieg had landed solid blows. As reporters roamed the debate hall seeking candidate reaction, one got Sanders’ attention and asked how he felt about the comments.
I fully expected Sanders to say something about how age is not the most important factor, etc. – in other words, to go on the defense. But he brought out the offense.
“I think that’s kind of ageism to tell you the truth,” Sanders said.
He went on to point out that a key Democratic goal is ending discrimination “against women, against minorities, against the LGBT community, and I think on ageism as well.”
For me, it was a forehead-smacking moment. The field of candidates features six women, two African Americans, one Asian American and a gay man. If anyone candidate had pointed out that he was (unlike some other candidates) white, or male, or heterosexual, they would have been booed off the stage.
Those forms of discrimination have long been rendered wrong-headed, unfair, hurtful.
But attack someone for being too old? Hmm. I didn’t realize that form of discrimination was still acceptable.
Now, let’s get real – we do decline with as we grow older, and age is something we can and should take into account. But age in and of itself is not a problem. Until someone is showing signs of physical or mental incapacity (which Sanders and Biden clearly are not) it’s a nonfactor.
And let’s remember that there are certain benefits of age as well – it’s called experience. Might I delicately point out that, until a few months ago, no one outside of South Bend, Indiana, had ever heard of Pete Buttigieg. (And many of us still aren’t even sure how to pronounce his name.)
Quick, tell me something about Eric Swalwell – without googling. I couldn’t either.
Think about it for a second: Those two are criticizing a long-time senator who came close to capturing the Democratic nomination for president four years ago has become the heart and soul of the liberal wing of the Democratic Party, and someone else who has devoted his life to public service and served as this nation’s vice president for eight years. (And I did not have to Google those facts.)
Perhaps Buttigieg and Swalwell should come up with stronger arguments for why we should choose them – relative unknowns – over Sanders and Biden.
Buttigieg has attacked discrimination on other fronts and got in another zinger during the debate accusing Republicans of hypocrisy on religion. He might want to look in the mirror.