The Age Of A President

The question is fair, even if Matty Yglesias at Vox can’t control the impulse to begin his argument with the worst possible reason.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is the biggest star in the Democratic Party, and she has been ever since she unseated Rep. Joe Crowley in a surprise primary upset in May. That her win didn’t, in the final analysis, launch a wave of leftist primary victories only goes to show what a phenomenon she personally is.

Not everyone shares her brand of politics, of course, but her constituency has exploded beyond the initial set of ideologues who powered the challenge to Crowley because of her incredible wit, charisma, social media savvy, and basic political smarts.

For better or worse, and despite her regular gaffes on the basics of civics, AOC has captured the imagination of the Democratic left. So what if she has yet to serve in office. So what if she hasn’t yet done anything. So what if she’s unfamiliar with the basic structure of government. It’s not as if the current president knows better.

But she can’t be elected president for the time being because she’s too young. Article II, Section 1 of the Constitution provides:

No person except a natural born Citizen, or a Citizen of the United States, at the time of the Adoption of this Constitution, shall be eligible to the Office of President; neither shall any person be eligible to that Office who shall not have attained to the Age of thirty-five Years, and been fourteen Years a Resident within the United States.

There was no magic to the age of 35 when it was chosen. It’s just the age decided, as George Mason argued, “if interrogated [he would] be obliged to declare that his political opinions at the age of 21 were too crude and erroneous to merit an influence on public measures.” Whether the words “crude and erroneous” would be chosen, many would agree that people under the age of 35 lack the judgment and life experience necessary to be president. Others, of course, would disagree.

Matty goes on to make the point that we let old people be president, and that may be worse.

While the law prevents anyone under the age of 35 from becoming president, we currently have a septuagenarian in the White House whose frequent nonsensical diatribes and notoriously scattered Twitter outbursts repeatedly raise the prospect of mental decline. Meanwhile, the top two Democrats in national polling — Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden — are 77 and 76, respectively.

There’s nothing wrong with old people per se, but essentially everyone has lost a step or two both mentally and physically by their mid-70s.

But more to the point, the really awful thing about being old is that you just keep getting older over time. We’re sitting here in the winter of 2018 talking about filling a presidential term that won’t start until 2021 — with an inevitable reelection campaign in 2024 for a term that wouldn’t end until early 2029.

That old people have lost a step or two isn’t an issue, since we can see that at the time we vote. If we still choose to vote for them, then we’ll take them a step slower. But that’s no assurance that they won’t lose another ten steps, or lose them all for that matter, over the course of the next four years. Physical and mental decline happen, often imperceptibly at first, but then with great speed.

People are understandably reluctant to say so, most of the time, but when someone has their finger on the nuclear button, their ability to think soundly, sanely and quickly matters. Even if a septuagenarian candidate displays the ability to serve, there’s a fairly good likelihood that things will be different three years later. Maybe not so different as to render the president incompetent, but who’s to say?

Yet, problems at the top end don’t resolve any questions about the bottom. While the age of 35 may have reflected a different sensibility than it would today, the question remains whether a minimum age makes sense at all.

With youth, by contrast, it’s the exact opposite situation. You might worry that a new youthful president is underexperienced (but then again, which president hasn’t been a little underexperienced), but lack of experience is guaranteed to improve with time. Things are as bad as they’ll ever be during the campaign, so voters can judge for themselves without worrying about lurking problems.

Besides which, 29 (Ocasio-Cortez’s age) just honestly isn’t that young. People younger than that are routinely trusted with life-and-death situations in a huge array of contexts, ranging from parenting to military service.

There are many ways in which a candidate for the presidency can be underexperienced. Age is just one. That relates more to like experience, to maturity of judgment. That a 29-year-old can be a parent isn’t a very compelling argument. So can 12-year-olds, but not well. But even though Matty’s argument is silly, it doesn’t mean he’s wrong.

The constitutional prohibition on people under the age of 35 serving as president is just one of these weird lacuna that was handed down to us from the 18th century but that nobody would seriously propose creating today if not for status quo bias.

Is it really just a “weird lacuna” that no one today would seriously propose? Probably not, despite Matty deciding for the rest of us. Most of us over 35 realize that we weren’t nearly as wise when we were younger as we thought we were, and we were absolutely certain at the time of our brilliance. We don’t appreciate how little we knew, we understood, until later.

But Matty eventually gets to the best argument.

Realistically, most people that young would simply have a hard time winning an election. But if you can pull it off, you should be allowed.

That strikes at the core of democracy, if a 29-year-old can persuade enough people to vote for her, then she has earned the right to serve. It would likely be impossible, for good reason, but that’s more than sufficient to control for the election of someone too immature to be president. If we can vote for some nutty old codger on the downhill slide, then why not the prodigy who captures our hearts and minds?

And I kind of think she should run for president.

Run? Sure. Win. Not if I have anything to say about it. Then again, my say didn’t do much about the current regime either, or more importantly, about the choice between bad and worse. While Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez may have a way to go before she’s even remotely ready to run for higher office, her age is the least of my concerns.

19 thoughts on “The Age Of A President

  1. Kirk A Taylor

    I think the fact that a 29 year old might get elected President (absent the age prohibition) is more of an argument for raising the voting age than it is in favor of letting a young person be President. The only constant in my life has been the realization of how stupid I was 5 years ago. The rate has slowed, but not the inarguable fact of it. A 29 year old President is scary, the prospect of a 25 or 21 year old is frankly terrifying. As a 25 year veteran, I can assure you that any argument based on military service is misguided – massive supervision and iron authority and discipline is required to keep young service members pointed in the right direction.

    1. SHG Post author

      There may come a time when enough young people vote that the wisdom of experience will come in second to the passion of youth. That’s democracy, where we get the government we deserve.

  2. Karl Kolchak

    Speaking as someone who was happy she defeated one of the worst Democrats in Congress, it’s still my opinion that merely the fact that she is already being touted as a presidential candidate shows how far we have fallen as a country. Heck, just the fact that candidates are already positioning themselves to announce they are running when Tump’s term isn’t even half over shows how broken the system is. It’s become a nearly neverending campaign, and the notion that those elected need to actually govern at some point has been lost along the way.

    1. SHG Post author

      The last election could have, and should have, been a clarion call to America that the adults need to take control and end the madness. Instead, it’s gone the other way. We’ve fallen, but can we get back up? That’s up to us, and at the moment there’s no indication we can.

  3. Aaron G.

    Maybe it’s because I’m under 35 and so terribly naive but, age really shouldn’t matter. An election is not about who should lead the country but rather who the people want to lead the country. If the US population wants a crotchety old fart, so be it. If they want a toddler, whatever. If the populace rallies behind three ducks in a trench coat, that’s fine too.

    We reap the wild votes we sow.

    1. David Meyer-Lindenberg

      We reap the wild votes we sow.

      You combined two cliches and a pun into something that almost kinda works. I’m impressed, and you have my vote.

    2. OtherJay

      I’m only slightly older than you, but Kirk is right. My parents were morons when I was 20, and it was amazing to see how much they learned by the time I was 25.

      It seems to me that younger people are more concerned about unimportant stuff like reality tv or whose going to be the next bachelor or instafacetiming their meals. That young people seem to ignore their lack of life experience while claiming to know what’s best, scares the crap out of me. OAC seems eager, but ignorant.

      Although, it’s not like the keebler elf or Barr are any better.

      Cliff Notes – we’re screwed

  4. phv3773

    It’s not just a question of whether the young candidate is qualified. It’s also a question of whether there is enough evidence for the voters to make a decision. One likes a candidate, young or old, with a bit a record in public service.

    1. SHG Post author

      A record of service can also bite one in the butt. See Joe Biden. Without a record, there’s less to pick apart.

  5. D-Poll

    A key feature of Yglesias’ argument is based in a common misconception: that cognitive decline is common or expected in septuagenarians. In fact this is completely false. Cognitive decline is a disease which affects primarily people of advanced age, and medical science does not consider it ‘normal’ at all. If Matty believes he is starting to lose a step or two, he’s free to speak for himself, but those who are spared from cognitive decline (like my own grandfather, who died this year), which is supposed to be the expected outcome for most people, retain full cognitive ability until the point of death.

    The fact that it has become an assumption that elders will experience cognitive decline simply demonstrates two things: the increasing prevalence of dementia probably caused by modern sedentary lifestyles, and the staggering lack of respect our society has toward the old.

    (That said, I’m under 35 and I think I’d make a great president.)

    1. SHG Post author

      Knowing an old guy here and there, I’m not going to argue this point with Matty. Cognitive decline happens. I wouldn’t pick that hill to die on.

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