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Opinion: In defense of old politicians

Congress has never been older. That’s not a bad thing.
Image by Ava Weinreis
Politicians from both parties have fielded criticism about certain leaders’ ages.

Editor’s Note: This column was published before news of Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s death broke on Sept. 29.

Politicians on both sides of the aisle have spent this year fielding media inquiries about their health.

Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ken.) was briefly hospitalized in March after being concussed in a fall. Since then, he’s had two public moments, once in July and once in late August, where he froze in front of the press. He was unable to answer questions or respond to statements. Both times he had to be rescued by staffers. McConnell is the Senate minority leader and is 81 years old.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) was hospitalized with shingles in February, returning to the Senate in May, only to be hospitalized again after a fall in August. She currently sits on the Senate Judiciary Committee and the Senate Committee on Appropriations. She is 90 years old.

As their health issues escalated, news outlets across the country have been publishing opinion and fact-finding articles alike, arguing over the role of these older politicians in ill health. Discussions are being had about whether it is sexist to want Feinstein to retire and whether McConnell should be more forthcoming about his health problems. Even Elon Musk has urged McConnell to step aside.

People come from every perspective on this issue. Some worry for the efficiency or longevity of their party or for how their states are being represented by aging officials. Others see older politicians as distanced from their needs and perspectives as young people.

Rep. Dean Phillips (D-Minn.) has even advocated for imposing term limits on members of Congress. He told NPR’s Morning Edition he was worried about “a growing lack of generational diversity” in Congress.

This suggestion raises a few red flags among experts.

“In general, political scientists are opposed to term limits,” said Kathryn Pearson, associate professor of political science at the University of Minnesota. “The effects of term limits are to give more power to lobbyists and interest groups, more power to staff, and more power to governors.”

Pearson pointed out there is already a way to get older politicians, who may be viewed as unable to fulfill their responsibilities to their constituents, out of office.

“Voters have the chance themselves to turn someone away from office by not reelecting them,” Pearson said.

Pearson also stressed these high-profile cases are the exception, not the rule. She criticized Feinstein’s decision to seek reelection in 2018 but spoke highly of Nancy Pelosi, for instance, who announced last year she would step down from her position as Speaker of the House. Despite leaving leadership, she has remained in her role as a representative from California and intends to seek reelection.

“On the one hand, voters who are seeing Diane Feinstein and seeing Mitch McConnell are thinking, ‘Why aren’t they being replaced by a new generation of politicians?’” Pearson said. “On the other hand, there are many politicians who we would think of as being past the 65-year-old retirement age who are making really amazing contributions in both parties.”

As we talked, I mentioned that in fall 2019 I interned for the office of Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn). Pearson lit up.

“She is exactly someone who exemplifies the value of having people stick around,” Pearson said. “She is older, but she is super sharp and she knows appropriations policy like the back of her hand. She is amazingly skilled, amazingly knowledgeable.”

DeLauro has represented Connecticut’s 3rd district since being elected in 1991. In 2021, after 30 years in the House, she was selected as chair of the House Appropriations Committee for the 117th Congress. She turned 80 this year. 

“And if she had been the appropriations chair six years after she was elected … she would not have had the expertise she has today,” Pearson said.

The subject of aging politicians causes everything from individual frustration to party infighting to political conflict. Earlier this year, Feinstein’s absence from the Senate Judiciary Committee due to her illness was blamed for slowing the committee’s confirmation of judicial appointees. The issue led to bipartisan clashing, with Republicans blocking attempts to fill Feinstein’s seat with a temporary replacement. Hillary Clinton, Sen. Lindsey Graham and numerous others from both parties offered their opinions.

I must point out: in 2018, Feinstein’s constituents knowingly reelected their 85-year-old incumbent for a six-year term. Feinstein was California’s first female U.S. senator when she was elected in 1992. She is the first woman to have chaired the Senate Rules Committee and the first woman to have chaired the Select Committee on Intelligence. 

These qualifications, in addition to her time as an impressive, widely liked local politician in San Francisco, have made her an immensely popular and qualified figure.

We claim to want politicians who are level-headed and knowledgeable, who have our best interests as their constituents at heart. We want politicians who are experienced and who can cut through their own party’s infighting and petty partisan rivalries.

Perhaps Feinstein ought not to have run for reelection. Perhaps she is too ill to fulfill all of her responsibilities. Perhaps this is increasingly true for McConnell, as well.

But can we concretely assign blame to their age, when there are older politicians who serve with efficiency, grace and great mental acuity well into their supposed twilight years?

“It needs to be more nuanced,” Pearson said. “The value that some politicians bring that reflects their long service and the development of expertise and legislative skill cannot be overlooked.”

This debate also comes as the nation gears up for a presidential showdown between President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump. Biden, age 80, would be the oldest presidential candidate in history. Trump, age 77, would also make history as the second-oldest.

In particular, Democratic-leaning voters are skeptical of Biden’s abilities due to his age. Despite the fact there is only a three-year age gap between the candidates, many tend to speak more favorably of Trump’s abilities, but both candidates’ ages, as well as the ages of many politicians, may conflict with the desires of younger voters.

“Young voters have this image of older politicians being unable to represent their interests, even if it’s not true,” Pearson said. “A lot of the party expertise and political skills are gained from long periods of service or people who may not start a career in politics until after they’ve done something else.”

It is a serious challenge to resist the panicked buzz, on both social media and in the news, regarding aging politicians. When everything from pandemic response to Roe v. Wade to Supreme Court confirmations have been on the table these last few years, it can feel agonizing to watch policymaking be moved along, at a snail’s pace, by senior citizens.

In these moments, though, I take comfort in the long careers of Feinstein, DeLauro and Pelosi. I look to the achievements of progressive leaders like Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Ver.) , age 82, and Rep. Maxine Waters (D – Calif.) age 85. 

As new members of Congress join the ranks with each election, it is the experience and wisdom of these party elders that assures the peaceful transfer of power and the stability of our democracy.

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