Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Grand Old, Old Party

One of the things about the improbable Newt Gingrich surge and the even more improbable chance that he'll win the nomination is that most of the stuff in the fat opposition research file on him has only barely started to go into circulation. I very much doubt whether many rank-and-file Republicans are aware that he was busted (by the House Ethics Committee) on an ethics violation way back when, for example.

But you know what else I don't think people realize about Newt? He's, well, old. Born in 1943. Part of his standard talking points about his marital history stress that he's a grandfather (because...oh, it's just too depressing to focus on). And you know what? Of course he is. He'll turn 69 in June. He wouldn't be a record-breaking first time nominee; that would be Bob Dole (turned 73 in 1996) and John McCain, (72 in 2008). And he'd be a few months younger than Ronald Reagan was in 1980. But still, that's pretty old.

Of course, it helps him that Ron Paul is up on the stage, and he's a lot older (b. 1935). The rest? Prince Herman was born in 1945, Mitt Romney in 1947, Rick Perry in 1950, Gary Johnson in 1953, and then the rest are younger.

I don't really have much to say about this, just though it was overlooked. Both McCain and Reagan took a fair amount of general election heat over their age, but I doubt if it made much of a difference. Then there's the question of electioneering, and whether candidates have the stamina to grind it out over the course of a long campaign. I have no reason to believe that Newt doesn't, but for whatever it's worth the history of older candidates is that the press tends to be quick to jump to speculation about systematic effects of age as soon as an older candidate sneezes. Obviously, however, it's hard to say that it's a disadvantage in the nomination contest. George H.W. Bush was 64 in 1988, and of course George W. Bush was a comparative baby, but Republican voters certainly don't have anything against older candidates. So in the modern era, the two Bushes have so far been the youngest new nominees, and I think everyone would agree that the odds of this cycle's winner topping 60, at least, must be pretty high.

16 comments:

  1. >Both McCain and Reagan took a fair amount of general election heat over their age, but I doubt if it made much of a difference.

    I disagree when it comes to McCain. While the Palin pick would have been a disaster for any candidate, the fact that McCain was old and had survived cancer lent special attention to the possibility that he might die in office, handing the reins over to someone most voters believed wasn't qualified for the job. If it had been a relatively healthy younger candidate, that prospect would have seemed more academic to a lot of people.

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  2. In fact, either Romney or Gingrich would be among the four oldest Presidents, were they elected. Currently in 4th place: George H. W. Bush, 64 years, 222 days. On Jan. 20, 2013, Mitt Romney will be 65 years, 314 days old (just one day younger than James Buchanan, who was 65 years, 315 days old on inauguration day).

    Newt would be second only to Reagan.

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  3. Roy Perkins, impartial dogcatcherDecember 13, 2011 at 3:26 PM

    For what it is worth (which is, of course, absolutely nothing), I have always thought that Gingrich's age, rather than the "business plan," is the primary reason that he is running for the presidency. Gingrich may or may not actually want to be President, but he clearly believes that he deserves the office more than anyone else running, or anyone else alive, or anyone else who has ever lived. This election was really his last chance to run (as you show, he would still be within the accepted Republican age range in 2016, but if he had waited till then he might have had to face a Republican incumbent). I think that he therefore felt obligated to give it a try--but he probably also did not think at first he had a real chance, which is why he put more emphasis then on selling books and DVDs than on running an actual campaign.

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  4. Dogcatcher,

    That's a sobering thought. If memory serves, James David Barber (Presidential Character) tells us that "active-negative" presidents--people who don't like the job but feel compelled to do it--are among the scariest. Think John Adams and Richard Nixon.

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  5. Barber is bunk...as Nelson Polsby pointed out any chance he had, there's a rather famous 19th c. president from Illinois who was certainly "active-negative" and turned out okay.

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  6. I'm pretty sure that most of the worry that McCain was too old/sick to survive his term(s) was eclipsed by the stunning revelation of how unprepared Palin would have been to assume the presidency, among any voters who would have been swayed by the issue.

    The ridiculousness of Palin (not reflective of her abilities as Alaska Governor, I mean on the Presidential Politics nominee level) as a VP choice showed that McCain was unsuited for the office more than any health issues he had.

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  7. (Sorry for the double post)

    By which I mean (to answer Kylopod's point) that even had McCain been younger and in good health, I believe the Palin pick would have eventually hurt (and helped) the Republican ticket in the same manner.

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  8. I'm pretty sure that most of the worry that McCain was too old/sick to survive his term(s) was eclipsed by the stunning revelation of how unprepared Palin would have been to assume the presidency

    The point I was making was that those two considerations weren't separate; they were interrelated. As I said, she would have been a disaster for any candidate. But McCain's age and health accentuated the problem by making the issue of her readiness seem ever more real and immediate.

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  9. Also, I haven't quite articulated this so far, but I think the effects of McCain's age were more visible and obvious than they were for Reagan, Dole, Gingrich, or even Paul. It wasn't just that he was 72; he felt old, in the way he moved and the way he talked. People slow down with age and often become less sharp, but these changes don't happen at the same time or to the same degree with every person. There are 88-year-olds who are sharper and more vigorous than individual 68-year-olds. But there's an overall decline once you reach your senior years, and I think it was beginning to show in McCain's case, more dramatically than it has for other old candidates. The only exception I can think of was the press's reaction to Reagan after one of the 1984 debates, one of the first incidents to invite speculation about his declining mental functions (confirmed years later when he was finally diagnosed with Alzheimer's).

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  10. I know that I've seen research showign that the Palin pick actually had an effect, which supports the "McCain's age had an effect" argument.

    I'd also second Kylopod's sentiments: McCain wasn't just old, he LOOKED old. Yes, it was because he was tortured for 5 years, but he couldn't lift his arms shoulder-high, and that made him move awkwardly. Dole also looked old because of his service to country. It might not be fair, but it's real.

    Plus, with the way we all live in Reagan's shadow to this day, I think the age thing has a bit more focus on it. At this point, Reagan being simply checked out for a couple years there is simply a fact amongst the press corp, and the questions they choose reflect their perceptions (see Gregory's questions of Ron Paul shown on the Daily Show last night for an example)

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  11. The point I was making was that those two considerations weren't separate; they were interrelated.

    And the point - I - was making is that irrespective of McCain's health, the unpreparedness of Palin would have been equally a turn off for some voters, just as her selection would have energized some conservative voters. I'm not sure our points are mutually exclusive.

    But McCain didn't choose Palin because he needed someone young to reassure people about his age/health concerns, he chose Palin because he needed a "game-changer" to rev up his base voters and try to win an election when.. the fundamentals of his political party were not strong.

    Rumors at the time said that McCain's preferred choice for a 'game-changing' running mate was Joe Lieberman, but the thinking was that the GOP convention go into full revolt. Hence, Palin got the nod over a boring choice like Pawlenty.

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  12. >I'm not sure our points are mutually exclusive.

    That depends what you're trying to say. If you're saying that Palin would have been just as damaging to a younger candidate as she was to McCain, then I disagree. Though Palin's lack of readiness was the main problem, and would have hurt any ticket she was on, it was compounded by McCain's age and health issues.

    >McCain didn't choose Palin because he needed someone young to reassure people about his age/health concerns

    That wasn't what I was implying, but now that you bring it up...I do happen to think he factored her relatively young age into his decision. It's traditional for presidential candidates to pick running mates with qualities that contrast with their own. The young, inexperienced Obama picked an older, experienced Washington hand as his running mate, and the old, experienced McCain picked a young, charismatic Washington outsider to inject some life into his campaign.

    >Rumors at the time said that McCain's preferred choice for a 'game-changing' running mate was Joe Lieberman

    It may have been mere rumors at the time, but it's been pretty much confirmed since then. Lieberman might have been a game changer in some ways because he wasn't a Republican, and he held views that have been considered verboten for a GOP presidential ticket since Reagan. I have a feeling the press would have invoked comparisons with the 1864 Lincoln/Johnson ticket, a Republican and ex-Democrat running together due to their shared loyalty to the Union in the Civil War. Though I doubt McCain would have won, it would have been a genuinely eccentric move that would have shaken things up quite a bit. Whichever running mate he chose, he was determined the selection wouldn't be boring--and he certainly achieved that goal with Palin. Oh, but did he.

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  13. > Though Palin's lack of readiness was the main problem, and would have hurt any ticket she was on, it was compounded by McCain's age and health issues.

    I'll have to grant you at least partial credit on that point, there was a lot of linkage in the election we had (as opposed to the election I invented with a younger, healthy McCain). Still, I'd say there was quite a difference between how Palin was made out be something of a whackadoodle, where another young, inexperienced VP candidate in Dan Quayle was accepted as mainstream enough, just woefully inexperienced. (And Poppy Bush wasn't exactly Scott Brown-vibrant as a candidate.)

    > but now that you bring it up...I do happen to think he factored her relatively young age into his decision. It's traditional for presidential candidates to pick running mates with qualities that contrast with their own.

    Age was a factor, but not determinative in McCain's thinking (age wouldn't have been a factor if Lieberman got the nod). And while it helped, age wasn't the reason for Palin either (aside from getting the Rich Lowry vote, in a purely cosmetic sense). Palin was the one who would get the Evangelical vote out in force, and that's why she was the pick. If McCain wanted someone young (and someone the media would accept as qualified), Tim Pawlenty was right there, begging for a spot on the ticket.

    Of course you can't discount that Palin was also chosen in hoped of attracting the disaffected Hillary supporters - I'm pretty sure that 'convention wisdom' was still getting bandied-about during the conventions.

    My thought on Campaign '08 was that McCain had a Hobson's choice, Lieberman would have led to a loss, someone more mainstream like Pawlenty would have led to a loss, and Palin did lead to a loss. It just would have been with different voting coalitions, and possibly somewhat different margins in the end. But that was basically an unwinnable election for the GOP.

    Politically, I think McCain made the 'best' choice in terms of shaking up the race, and giving him a longshot chance of pulling out a win - but for the guy who used "Country First" as a slogan, Palin was in retrospect the worst choice for the ongoing political discourse.

    There has to be times, when McCain is alone in his Senate office, when he thinks of his tattered reputation and how he sold his political soul in that '08 campaign. Compare and contrast to Bob Dole, who got thumped but retained his honor.

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  14. Still, I'd say there was quite a difference between how Palin was made out be something of a whackadoodle, where another young, inexperienced VP candidate in Dan Quayle was accepted as mainstream enough, just woefully inexperienced.

    The Quayle and Palin cases aren't exactly the same, but both were perceived as not qualified for the job. One difference is that Bush Sr., while not young when he entered office, was not commonly thought to be a heart attack away from placing the nation in the hands of a neophyte.

    If McCain wanted someone young (and someone the media would accept as qualified), Tim Pawlenty was right there, begging for a spot on the ticket.

    But that wouldn't have shaken up the race. As I mentioned before, his main goal was to make a choice that wasn't boring--to defy the conventional wisdom. Both Lieberman and Palin would have done that, in very different ways. Palin was supposed to be a package--an authentic right-wing evangelical who also had a reputation as a reformer and could draw in disgruntled Hillary supporters. (I'm not sure that last consideration was a serious part of why Palin was selected, but it was definitely expressed by the media.) The fact that she was a young (in political terms), gorgeous woman was just another factor that helped excite those she appealed to. Lieberman's profile was obviously very different, but it would have been another out-of-the-box choice, one that would have immediately invited talk of making serious inroads with Democrats and independents.

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  15. Last word from me on this, I think we've reached as much consensus on the subject as there is between us. (And I appreciate the exchange of views, thanks for that.)

    I introduced Pawlenty to illustrate that Palin wasn't primarily chosen because she was young, and Lieberman to show that Palin wasn't primarily chosen because she was a "game-changer". What Palin had that no other VP candidate had was the backing of conservative pundits like Kristol, and would energize the Christianist wing of the GOP base, who were quite unenthusiastic with the party's choice of 'centrist' McCain as standard bearer.

    I remain convinced that Quayle didn't cost GHW Bush votes to any degree like Palin cost McCain votes. We'll have to agree to disagree on that point.

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  16. >I introduced Pawlenty to illustrate that Palin wasn't primarily chosen because she was young

    I never said she was primarily chosen because she was young. Actually, until you brought this up I wasn't talking at all about the reasons behind McCain's choice. I was simply suggesting that McCain's age and health issues intensified voters' fears of a President Palin.

    >and Lieberman to show that Palin wasn't primarily chosen because she was a "game-changer".

    But Palin was chosen to be a game-changer. That's been well-established. And Lieberman would have been an attempted game-changer also, just in a very different way. And yes, the race was basically unwinnable for McCain, but it's hard for me to imagine Lieberman--or, for that matter, a "safe" choice like Romney or Pawlenty--having been more of a disaster for the ticket than Palin ended up being.

    >What Palin had that no other VP candidate had was the backing of conservative pundits like Kristol

    Kristol was one of the few mainstream pundits backing her. Outside of wingnut-land, conservative opinion-makers were almost uniformly unimpressed by the selection.

    >and would energize the Christianist wing of the GOP base, who were quite unenthusiastic with the party's choice of 'centrist' McCain as standard bearer.

    That's the only argument I've seen for how she helped the McCain ticket. It's unconvincing. Matt Glassman mentions several studies confirming the commonsense suspicion that she had an unusually significant negative effect on the ticket. Had McCain selected her in a year that was more favorable to Republicans, it's possible he could have blown his chances of winning.

    >I remain convinced that Quayle didn't cost GHW Bush votes to any degree like Palin cost McCain votes. We'll have to agree to disagree on that point.

    Agree to disagree? I never said Quayle had as negative an impact on the Bush ticket as Palin had on the McCain ticket. The only point I made was that Bush didn't give off the same old-man vibes as McCain did, and so a bad vp choice probably seemed less consequential because nobody assumed there was a strong chance of Bush dying in office.

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