The Real Problem With America’s Gerontocracy
Chuck Grassley wants everyone to know that he might well be the fittest 89-year-old in the entire state of Iowa. Running hard to retain the seat he first won in 1980, he’s tweeted out video of his early-morning runs, done push-ups at public campaign events, and cut an ad touting his vitality. For a guy who would be 95 by the time his term ends, it seems like a smart move, short-circuiting concerns about whether he’s up to the job.
But what if the concern over a longtime politician’s age has less to do with fear that the candidate might die or become incapacitated — and more to do with whether trying to snag yet another term at an age when almost everyone else is retired is just plain arrogant and greedy?
Grassley makes a good test of that question — a test that merits attention from elected officials across this geriatric-run city, whether or not they have any particular tie to the Hawkeye State.
Unlike Senate colleagues such as California Democrat Dianne Feinstein, Grassley has never been trailed by reports that he’s losing his marbles. Unlike a whole slew of other senators — including much younger pols like 50-year-old New Mexico Democrat Ben Ray Luján, who suffered a stroke — he hasn’t missed significant chunks of time due to serious health issues. His ad touts his best-in-the-Senate attendance record.
And yet a poll published this week that has shocked political pros in the state suggests voters have serious qualms about Grassley’s age. The survey, by the veteran Iowa polling firm Selzer & Co., reported that Grassley was running only 3 points ahead of his Democratic challenger, Mike Franken. Iowa’s Republican governor, meanwhile, was leading her race by 17 points, according to the survey, conducted with the Des Moines Register.
Despite months of Grassley-the-pushup-pro messaging, some 60 percent of respondents, including more than a third of Republicans, told pollsters that they thought age was a concern.
The question that ought to occupy the minds of people like the incumbent president of the United States (who turns 80 this fall), his most likely 2024 challenger (now 76), the Democratic triumvirate atop the House of Representatives (82, 83 and 82) and maybe the entire Senate (the oldest in American history) is: What kind of concern? If nobody is challenging the notion that Grassley is physically and mentally up to the job, shouldn’t everything be fine?
Apparently not, even for some fans. “Clearly there are people who are voting for him who are still concerned about his age,” says J. Ann Selzer, the veteran Iowa pollster behind the survey. That in itself is surprising, she says, given the nature of partisan voting today. “In this day and age you don’t see many instances where people give one answer and then contradict themselves.”
Selzer says the same vibe was showing up in her surveys even before Grassley declared for reelection, as voters told her they would prefer if he didn’t run.
The standard language of the questions she posed before Grassley decided to seek another is telling: They asked if voters would prefer to reelect Grassley or whether “it’s time for someone else to hold office.” It sounds less like a question about the incumbent’s physical health than a kindergarten teacher’s appeal to fairness. In September of 2021, nearly two-thirds of Selzer’s poll chose that option.
In fact, it’s precisely because Grassley isn’t trailed by any health and acuity concerns that age is a compelling issue in the race. “It’s not because Mike Franken is bringing it up,” says Jeff Link, a Democratic strategist in Des Moines. “It’s because Grassley brings it up all the time. He does push-ups at events to prove that he is fit. … I think if Mike Franken were talking about age, it would work to Grassley’s advantage.”
Ordinarily, when they become campaign attack topics, questions about a political figure’s age descend into a generally useless debate about health or brain power or ageism. When people tried to nudge Ruth Bader Ginsburg into stepping down, the public conversation among admirers and detractors quickly came to focus on the justice’s workout routine and her sharp questions and how dare you make any assumptions based on her age, anyway? Ditto the recurring viral videos of Joe Biden’s verbal oopsies or Donald Trump’s odd way of descending a ramp: They put voters and pundits in the position of playing gerontologist, and it all really can feel quite unfair to the older candidate in question.
But the problem of American gerontocracy is not ultimately a problem of infirm or senescent leadership. Sad stories like the late years of Mississippi Sen. Thad Cochran notwithstanding, we really don’t have anything resembling the dying, stupefied politburo of Brezhnev’s USSR. I’ll stipulate that Nancy Pelosi (82) and Mitch McConnell (80) could outthink and outwork most mortals, including me. The problem, instead, is an increasingly impenetrable elite with entrenched habits, jobs that get treated like entitlements and coteries of courtiers who disconnect them from the zeitgeist.
If indeed some statistically relevant proportion of Iowa voters are saying that sometimes a guy’s just been around too long, that’s a good thing for Washington. And if that same population comes to see the choice to stick around as an example of refusal to do the decent and sensible thing, that should scare Joe Biden, Donald Trump and a host of other powerful figures. Look no further than the posthumous backlash against RBG to see how short a trip it can be from beloved institution to victim of self-delusion.
Not that such a transformation is likely in the case of Grassley between now and November. He remains heavily favored, even if the margin winds up smaller. There are also enough Iowa-specific factors shaping the race that it’s hard to chalk anything up to age alone. He had a credible primary challenger this year. The GOP has changed: His votes may be conservative enough to turn off some moderates, but his style doesn’t match the incendiary rhetoric favored by Trump-era Republicans in Iowa and beyond.
“He’s still leading,” Selzer says. “So what else is he going to say? That age is a number and he runs two miles a day. I think it’s the obvious thing for him to say.”
Sure enough, that was the party line after the latest poll. “If people think I can’t do the job, they ought to follow me around,” he told a group of Iowa radio reporters this week. “I go to bed at 9. Get up at 4. [Run] two miles in morning. Get to the office before 6. Usually in the office until 6:30, quarter ’til 7. I have a full schedule when I’m in the office — you know, committee meetings, caucuses, interviews like this that I do 52 times a year.”
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