The caucuses and primaries are on the way. Votes now matter more than debate ratings.
The seriousness of the moment became more evident when the New York Times announced its endorsements for the Democratic nomination. It supports two candidates, both senators, Amy Klobuchar and Elizabeth Warren.
Its endorsement editorial is unusually frank about what it sees as one drawback of a couple of others.
On Bernie Sanders: “Mr. Sanders would be 79 when he assumed office, and after an October heart attack, his health is a serious concern.”
On Joe Biden: “Mr. Biden is 77. It is time for him to pass the torch to a new generation of political leaders.”
The Times editorial covers only Democrats, and did not mention that Donald Trump is 73.
The oldest U.S. president at the end of his term was Ronald Reagan, who was almost 78. Sanders and Biden are now both older than Reagan when he left the White House.
Older people remain in reasonably good health well into old age. But aging takes a toll, reducing and changing some abilities and raising the prospect of the onset of serious illness.
Many people seek to avoid any hint of age discrimination, so they choose to ignore the possible impact of aging on a candidate’s ability to carry out the heavy duties of president and commander-in-chief.
But, just as a voter might conclude that a candidate was too young to have gained enough experience to take on the presidency, a voter might take a candidate’s advanced age into account. The relationship between age and health makes that a reasonable concern.
Presidents Woodrow Wilson and Reagan were considered to have lost some of their abilities due to declining health by the end of their terms in office. Four other presidents died in office for health-related reasons. These were six of the 44 people who served as president, a high enough percentage to cause people to take age into account.
It has become traditional for a major party’s presidential nominee to pick a running mate only after having locked up the nomination. The assumption may be that the nominee does not want the vice presidential choice to raise any questions about the nominee’s judgment before it is too late to reverse the decision.
Both Democratic Sen. George McGovern and Republican Sen. John McCain, whose choices for running mate caused them almost immediate complications, might have benefited from having made their selections well before the national conventions.
Amid all the campaign promises, the nominee’s decision on a running mate is possibly the only binding, public action affecting the presidency they can make during a campaign. That decision may say more about the person than all of the promises, many of which will be impossible to keep.
As I wrote several months ago, those seeking a party’s nomination should announce their running mates well in advance.
The media should ask Sanders and Biden about their running mates before people start voting in the caucuses and primaries. If voters had some reassurance that they knew who might be president if a problem arose, it could make them more comfortable voting for an older candidate.
That probably won’t happen because the media is so accustomed to waiting until just before the conventions. If Sanders or Biden did not wait to be asked and took the initiative, it could attract favorable attention.
Of course, they may worry that naming a running mate might call attention to their age. Both Democrats are vigorous, so they probably don’t want voters to focus on their many decades.
Without the early selection of a running mate, Sanders might improve the chances for Warren. Given the similarity of their views, liberal voters may conclude that it is safer to support Warren. Never has catching a bad cold been more of a threat to the success of leading candidate.
As for Trump, voters and the media assume he will continue with Mike Pence as his running mate. In 2016, Pence served his purpose in reassuring voters of the ticket’s political experience. Trump is certainly capable of coming up with a new name even as late as the GOP Convention in August.
A late selection by Trump would get more media attention than sticking with Pence. The age insurance provided by the Vice President might not be lost, though Trump may think he doesn’t need it.
In the end, both the candidates and the voters would benefit by an announcement now of a running mate at least by the three oldest candidates – Sanders, Biden and Trump.