How the 2020 election became ‘That ’70s Show’
John Avlon is a CNN senior political analyst. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion articles on CNN.
Welcome to “That ’70s Show” — the 2020 election edition.
America has always been known as a young and hungry country. But for the first time, our political stage is dominated by a cadre of candidates almost all in their 70s. I know we’ve got an aging population, but this is ridiculous.
The baby boomers have dominated our politics and our culture for a long time. But they keep replaying their old hippie versus hard-hat grudge matches and imposing them on the rest of us.
At 73, Donald Trump is the oldest first-term president we’ve ever had.
Joe Biden, the Democrat who’s led in the polls for most of the campaign, is 77 — the same age as the candidate playing the Biden back-up position in the center-lane: Mike Bloomberg.
On the left of the spectrum, Bernie Sanders, who rebounded from a heart attack on the campaign trail, is 78, while Elizabeth Warren is the spring chicken of the boomer crew, coming in at a cool 70 years of age.
Of course, when it comes to the presidency, age is not a disqualifier. We want experience in our leaders. Some stability would be nice change of pace as well.
It’s often said that with age comes wisdom…although it might also mean a few miles off the fastball. Jimmy Carter, who left office at age 56, has suggested that there should be an age limit to the presidency, saying he couldn’t have done the job at age 80.
Consider this reality check: when Dwight D. “Ike” Eisenhower was elected in 1952, he was considered ancient — and he was just 62.
JFK, who succeeded Ike, was a generation younger at 43 and promised to get America moving again. Since then we’ve only had two presidents in their forties — Bill Clinton and Barack Obama.
In fact, the average age of presidential nominees since 1960 is 59 years old. For Democrats, it’s 54. For Republicans, it’s 64.
At times it seems like we’re still living through a replay of 1970s political dramas.
We’ve got a president who loves Richard Nixon so much that he’s gone from stealing his slogans to actually getting impeached on one of the same charges Nixon faced: abuse of power in addition to obstruction of Congress.
The top tier of Democratic candidates were all adults when Watergate occurred…heck, Joe Biden was even serving in the Senate.
But the 1970s replay Democrats really have to worry about is the 1972 election, when the liberal Senator George McGovern of South Dakota captured the nomination by riding a populist wave and Nixon won the presidency by a landslide, sweeping 49 states.
There’s always a danger that Democrats end up playing to their base at the expense of reaching out to the center, stirring up reflexive Republican attacks on campus radicals, liberal elites and, of course, socialism. And of course, that’s exactly the campaign Team Trump plans to wage — once again cut and pasted out of the Nixon playbook.
Now, it’s true that the Democratic field this cycle includes some of our youngest candidates –especially millennial Pete Buttigieg and Gen Xers like Corey Booker, Andrew Yang and Julian Castro. What’s odd is that they haven’t even been leading with young voters – a Harvard/IOP survey from earlier this year found that they were most likely to support the two oldest candidates — Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden. It turns out that identity politics has its limits.
The baby boomers came in promising endless progress and the Age of Aquarius but they ended up elevating a 21st-century version of Gordon Gekko to the presidency.
Whatever their age, the president needs to be vigorous as well as wise. We need leaders who understand how to make hope and history rhyme, but who also understand the forces shaping the future – because that’s the real purpose of presidential leadership: not just to unite the nation but to build a better future for us all.
The next president will serve in the third decade of the 21st century. So enough with the nostalgia plays that riff off old divides. Yes, we could use some stability and experience in the White House. But after this election, please, let’s all agree that it’s time to turn off that 70s show.