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The Hillary Clinton age trap

Talking about age and health is a losing GOP strategy and an unnecessary one

June 5, 2014 2:00AM ET

There is no avoiding age as an issue in presidential campaigns. Ronald Reagan, Bob Dole and John McCain all had to deal with it, and 2016 prospect Hillary Clinton is already fielding ham-fisted Republican references to her age and health. The conservative Drudge Report even suggested she was holding a walker on the cover of People magazine — except that the walker was actually a patio chair.

Before Drudge, there was Karl Rove, who reportedly wondered whether Clinton’s 2012 concussion and blood clot might have led to brain damage. In the media dust-up that followed, Republican Party chairman Reince Priebus said questions about age and health were “fair game.” That’s true. And it’s standard for presidential candidates to provide medical records or at least a summary of their health status from their doctors.

But discussing the issue is not a winning strategy for Republicans, a fact reinforced by a new poll in which two-thirds of Americans said they disapproved of Rove’s remarks. Even subtle attempts to highlight Clinton’s age are likely to be self-defeating. On top of that, they are unnecessary.

Let’s look at the numbers. Reagan was the oldest U.S. president to take office, at 69. If Clinton runs and wins, that’s the same age she would be on Inauguration Day 2017. The media are not going to let anyone forget that historical factoid, so there is no need for Republicans to repeat it and every reason for them not to.

For one, it would simply give Democrats more fodder to argue that the GOP is waging a war on women. It’s risky business to raise age and health issues about a pioneering feminist when your party has a significant gender gap and is already playing defense on abortion, birth control and other issues important to many women.

There’s also the unsettling fact that when Clinton is perceived as vulnerable or a victim, her poll numbers soar. That was the case during the Monica Lewinsky scandal, when she was viewed as the wronged woman. She also gained ground after Republican Rick Lazio aggressively invaded her space at a 2000 Senate debate in New York. And let’s not forget that she unexpectedly won the 2008 New Hampshire primary after nearly breaking down in tears in a coffee shop. And fairly or not, tactics that might go unnoticed against a male opponent are going to be scrutinized through a gender prism and likely deemed out of line, seen as bullying.

Fortunately for the GOP, such tactics will probably also be superfluous. Check out the Republican field. Only two prospects, Rick Perry and Jeb Bush, are in their 60s. Five are in their 50s (Chris Christie, Mike Huckabee, Rand Paul, Mike Pence and Rick Santorum), and another five are in their 40s — young enough to be Clinton’s sons (Ted Cruz, Bobby Jindal, Marco Rubio, Paul Ryan and Scott Walker). The generational contrast will be obvious, just as it was when Clinton was running against Barack Obama in 2008.

On the campaign trail then, Obama did not go near the generation gap for months. When he finally did — just before the Iowa caucuses — he couched it as a call to move on from “the same old politics” and “the same Washington players.” Without mentioning Clinton by name, he said it was time to “turn the page.” Clinton came in a devastating third in Iowa and gave her concession statement amid a group of party elders, including her husband and former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. The visual contrast with Obama and his young following had an immediate impact. By the next contest, in New Hampshire, youthful supporters dominated Clinton’s election-night tableau.

If anything, the age issue will be even more pronounced in 2016 than it was in 2008. While a Clinton victory would be a thrilling breakthrough for women, it would also seem like a generation-wide step back after Obama’s inauguration at age 47.

Even if Republicans tiptoe around the age issue, tradition suggests they can rest assured it will receive ample airing — if not in traditional media, then on late-night shows.

In addition, Clinton will have added to her political résumé at a time when being a Washington veteran has become a net negative, according to a recent Pew Research Center poll. In a reversal from 2008, when Washington experience was viewed as a substantial advantage, 30 percent now say it would make them less likely to vote for a presidential candidate, compared with 19 percent who say more likely.

This gives an edge to the GOP, with its emerging outsider field of governors and brand-new senators. It’s also another contrast with Clinton that would be self-evident, since virtually everyone is aware of the decades she spent in Washington as a first lady, senator and secretary of state.

Furthermore, even if Republicans tiptoe around the age issue, tradition suggests they can rest assured it will receive ample airing — if not in traditional media, then on late-night shows. In 2008, David Letterman joked that the same State Department employee who had sneaked a look at Obama’s passport file “was also looking at John McCain’s Civil War records.” Jay Leno played a video that showed McCain’s picture on a pyramid and his signature on the Declaration of Independence. McCain, a survivor of torture as a POW in Vietnam and of skin cancer later in life, turned 72 during that campaign. He often described himself lightly as “older than dirt,” with “more scars than Frankenstein.”

That jokey approach worked much better than Dole’s attempt to highlight his age and turn it into a positive. “Age has its advantages,” Dole said in accepting the GOP nomination in 1996, when he was 73. But then he started rhapsodizing about an America that used to be better and how he wanted to be a bridge “to a time of tranquillity, faith and confidence in action.” Bill Clinton later seized the moment at his own convention. “With all respect, we do not need to build a bridge to the past,” he said. “We need to build a bridge to the future.”

Hillary Clinton is no Bob Dole. She is very much in the moment, weighing in on current issues from economic inequality to voter ID laws to empowering women (especially older ones). Yet Republicans are already echoing her husband’s words as they contemplate the Democrats’ 2016 plans. As Rubio recently pointed out in New Hampshire, “They’re threatening to nominate someone now who wants to take us to the past, to an era that is gone and is never coming back. The 20th century is gone. We live in the 21st century. And that’s where our party must step in.” He turned 43 on May 28.

Reagan delivered a classic response when he was asked about his age in a 1984 presidential debate against Democratic opponent Walter Mondale. “I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience,” the president, then 73, said of his 56-year-old challenger.

Thirty years later, that is arguably still the best example of a politician’s defusing the age issue and one Clinton should emulate if necessary. For Republicans, the wisest course of action is to ensure they are not the ones to put her in that position. 

Jill Lawrence, the author of the Brookings Institution’s Profiles in Negotiation series, is a U.S. News & World Report contributing editor and a member of USA Today’s board of contributors.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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