Why McCain's Age Matters: Reagan

During the 80s, Burke Breathed, during one of his many bouts of genius, coined the term "offensensitivity." Truly a great term lost in the era of 'sniglets,' the term described those whose ability to be offended seemed greater than the offense.

We've been through several offensensitive moments this 2008 election cycle. With fine lines of racism and sexism drawn, both Democratic campaigns had supporters -- and even candidates, who walked those lines. Sometimes clumsily.

There is no role for sexism or racism in sincere political discourse. (There is certainly a role for it in craven, evil political discourse, as anything goes when power in at play. To deny it is naive. To abide it is pathetic.)

But lately, if today/tomorrow's Politico front-page is any indication, the McCain campaigns attempt to insert its own offensensitivity into the mix -- ageism -- is getting a hearing.

As some Republicans see it, Democrats are deliberately talking in code about the presumptive 71-year-old GOP nominee as part of an attempt to highlight his age.

"It is code; there is no question it is," Ed Rollins, a Republican strategist who helped lead President Ronald Reagan's 1984 reelection campaign, said when age surfaced as an issue. "They are trying to raise doubts."

MSNBC host Joe Scarborough repeatedly argued on his show last week that the Obama campaign was portraying McCain as a "doddering, old, confused fool. He needs to go to Miami Beach and play checkers." 

More at the jump...

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Primary endgame, VP BBQ

If you love Hillary, you won't love today's Left, Right & Center...but it's a good show, with discussion of Hillary's endgame (I know! don't blame me, I am just the messenger!), McCain's age, health and Veepstakes, Obama's gaffe and lastly, Bob blames Bush for high oil prices. We'd love to hear your comments, tune in to the podcast anytime, the live stream at 2:30 and 7 pm pacific time, or listen later on-demand at KCRW.com. (Oh yeah: in SoCal, we're on air, too! We are a radio station, after all! 89.9 FM and other frequencies.)

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Mirror, Mirror

Had I the heaven's embroidered cloths,
Enwrought with golden and silver light,
The blue and the dim and the dark cloths
Of night and light and the half-light,
I would spread the cloths under your feet:
But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.

Tuesday's Child is Full of Grace

Yesterday was my birthday.  There was no real celebration, I'm sad to say.  Not much gets celebrated these days.  I am in my 5th decade - and with age comes wisdom - or so I am told.  So here are my reflections on what it meant to officially enter `middle-age' - that purgatory of between times, when no one seems to give a damn any more who you are, or what you have to say.  

Life certainly comes with a boatload of caveats.

Remembering what my life was.....

On the eve of my 24th birthday I sat alone in my apartment and took stock of my life up until that point.  Assisting me in that endeavor was a ½ gallon jug of wine, and a carton of Benson & Hedges menthol cigarettes.  I remember I wept - for all I had lost, for all that never came and against a future that seemed rather bleak indeed.  I stared at and through that bottle, each sip as sour as my mood, chain-smoking myself into a nicotine high - wondering if I should take arms against my sea of troubles and by opposing end them.  At the time, it did indeed seem a consummation devoutly to be wished.  I was entering my 25th year; I was living in a one bedroom apartment surrounded by a single bean bag chair and an old wire spool table. Unable to keep my pets while in the homeless shelter, I had stupidly trusted them to my mother who promptly had my brother kill them; `for my own good', she said.  My acting career, such as it was, had come to a screeching halt about the same time I said no to auditioning for Playboy (the casting couch just wasn't for me).  So it didn't seem likely I would be accepting that Academy Award any time soon.  In vino veritas - the time had come, the walrus said to speak of many things.  I had a choice to make that night.  Did I give up the ghost as had my sister, aunt and cousin?  Or did I soldier on; changing all those things in my life that brought me to that pivotal moment.  Did I really wish to end the heartache and thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to?

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McCain's Age Problem?

John McCain doesn't have a lot of things going for him. He's way behind in fundraising. He's out of step with the country on Iraq. He admittedly knows nothing about the economy. And he'll be up against a Democratic candidate (no matter which we choose) who will have more star power and infrastructure behind them than the "moderate" Republican can muster.

But is McCain's age a liability?

John McCain was born on August 29th, 1936. By the time the general election kicks into full swing, he will be 72. His opponents are considerably younger. Hillary Clinton will be 61 in October. Barack Obama will be 47.

It is hard to say whether a candidate's age has played a factor in the general election. Correlation, of course, does not equal causation. Taking a look at the statistics going back to 1952, a pattern does emerge:

Democratic Candidate (Age at the time)Republican Candidate (Age at the time)Winner (years older or younger than opponent)
John Kerry (61)George W. Bush (58)George W. Bush (-3)
Al Gore (52)George W. Bush (54)George W. Bush (+2)
Bill Clinton (50)Bob Dole (73)Bill Clinton (-23)
Bill Clinton (46)George H.W. Bush (68)Bill Clinton (-22)
Michael Dukakis (55)George H.W. Bush (64)George H.W. Bush (+9)
Walter Mondale (56)Ronald Reagan (73)Ronald Reagan (+17)
Jimmy Carter (56)Ronald Reagan (69)Ronald Reagan (+13)
Jimmy Carter (52)Gerald Ford (63)Jimmy Carter (-11)
George McGovern (50)Richard Nixon (59)Richard Nixon (+9)
Hubert Humphrey (57)Richard Nixon (55)Richard Nixon (-2)
Lyndon Johnson (56)Barry Goldwater (55)Lyndon Johnson (+1)
John F. Kennedy (43)Richard Nixon (47)John F. Kennedy (-4)
Adlai Stevenson (56)Dwight D. Eisenhower (66)Dwight D. Eisenhower (+10)
Adlai Stevenson (52)Dwight D. Eisenhower (62)Dwight D. Eisenhower (+10)

Republican candidates who win are almost as a rule older then their opponents. Democrats who win are younger than theirs. In a match-up against Obama or Clinton, McCain would then be playing into this pattern. If he was younger than his Democratic rivals, I'd be tempted to say he was at a disadvantage, given the history. But he's not, so it's hard to say given this data whether age will be a factor.

Nevertheless, older candidates typically poll lower among the general electorate:

A 2007 Pew poll, which tested the desirability of 23 personal characteristics for presidential candidates, found 48 percent of its respondents saying that they would be less likely to vote for candidates in their 70's. This was about the same percentage who said they were disinclined to vote for a presidential candidate who was a Muslim or a former drug user. Only atheists and candidates who had never held elective office engendered more negative responses.

Bill Clinton was able to make age an effective weapon in 1996 against Bob Dole, and there is no doubt Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama won't hesitate to use this line of attack given the opportunity.

Still, statistically speaking, it's hard to say if McCain's age will hurt him in the general election. The numbers as they stand seem inconclusive.

Have you seen any polls or historical statistics that say something different?

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McCain Suggests He May Not Seek Second Term

One day before the Iowa caucuses and John McCain continues to show life in the polls, most notably in New Hampshire, where the latest Suffolk University tracking poll shows him extending his lead over Romney to 9 points, and nationally, where the latest Pew poll has him eke ahead of Giuliani for the first time since January, holding a statistically insignificant 2% lead. Hell, it's even looking like McCain will have a 3rd place ticket out of Iowa tomorrow night after having hardly even campaigned there. So what does this all mean?

Well, I've said before that I believe McCain would be the most daunting Republican candidate to go up against in November and I do think that our best case scenario out of tomorrow night is a. that the story is mostly about Romney v. Huckabee, thus making 3rd place irrelevant and b. Romney exceeds expectations so that he goes into New Hampshire with momentum and snuffs out McCain's insurgency 5 days later. Assuming this perfect storm doesn't hit, however, and McCain is able to translate a New Hampshire win into an infusion of money and support to snowball him through the rest of the early states to the nomination, how to take him down? McCain today revealed what he thinks is his greatest vulnerability: his age.

John McCain is 71 years old, but the issue of his age comes up only occasionally at his town meetings. That is why a query this morning at Pembroke Academy was striking. A woman asked whether McCain had the stamina to serve as president for eight years.

McCain responded by leaving open the possibility that, if he is elected, he might not seek re-election.

"If I said I was running for eight years, I'm not sure that would be a vote getter," McCain said shortly before leaving New Hampshire for Iowa.

John McCain has carefully tried to nurture a relatively strong and youthful persona this campaign season, both through ads featuring images of him as a young soldier and through the appearance of his 91 year old mother on the campaign trail to remind us just how many more years he has in him, but here he seems to undo it all with the implication that his stating that he'd run for a second term would be straining credibility with voters because he's so freakin ancient. Very odd.

Which brings me to what is likely McCain's actual top vulnerability: not just his age, but the kooky sort of off-message things he tends to say in the guise of "straight talk" ("Bomb bomb bomb Iran" comes to mind) that cumulatively make you think "maybe he is too old to trust the presidency with." In other words, we're much more likely to get a macaca moment out of nominee McCain than nominee Romney.

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