Is the Democratic race for president — and possibly even the 2020 general election — going to boil down to a choice of aged front-runners (or incumbent) versus a younger challenger who represents generational change? It’s certainly possible.
President Donald Trump, the oldest person ever to assume the presidency when he was inaugurated in 2017, turns 72 in June. It wouldn’t be without precedent if Democratic voters — and eventually the electorate as a whole — saw the 2020 election as an opportunity to make a statement about the future and generational change.
It has already happened a couple of times in recent memory.
President Dwight Eisenhower left office in 1961 at the age of 70 after serving eight years in the White House. His successor, Democrat John F. Kennedy, was just 43 when he was elected president the previous year.
The contrast between Eisenhower and Kennedy was obvious, as was the charisma gap between the Massachusetts Democrat and his Republican opponent, Vice President Richard Nixon, who was only 47 but represented continuity.
Thirty-two years later, in 1992, another Democrat ran for the White House on a message of generational change. Bill Clinton was 46 when he was elected president, making him the first baby boomer in the White House.
The Republican incumbent Clinton defeated, President George H.W. Bush, was 68 when he sought re-election. He had also served two terms as vice president under Ronald Reagan, whose presidency ended when he was 77 years old.
Again, there was an obvious charisma gap between Clinton and Bush.
Now, 28 years after that 1992 election, Democrats face a quandary: Do they nominate a senior citizen or someone much younger who can portray the sitting president as part of the past?
The answer, to some extent, depends on the kind of campaign Democrats want to wage. Do they want a contest about ideology, issues and policy or about change, hope and character?
Four announced Democratic hopefuls are old enough to collect Social Security: Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders (age 77), Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren(69), Washington Gov. Jay Inslee (68) and former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper (67). And that doesn’t count former Vice President Joe Biden(76), who is widely expected to enter the race.
On the other hand, two hopefuls are under 40 — South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg (37) and Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (37) — and three others are in their 40s: former HUD Secretary Julián Castro (44), former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke (46) and New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker (49).
Six announced candidates and potential hopefuls fall between the two extremes: New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (52), Montana Gov. Steve Bullock (52), Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet (54), California Sen. Kamala Harris (54) and former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (62).
Of that latter group, Harris offers the greatest contrast with Trump, a younger, female, multiracial Californian.
The Feb. 24-27 NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll asked voters how comfortable and enthusiastic they would be with a potential nominee who had certain characteristics.
Only a third of those responding said they would be comfortable or enthusiastic with someone over 75 years of age. On the surface, that’s not great news for older hopefuls, especially Biden and Sanders.
But there is no way of knowing how many voters are so uncomfortable that they wouldn’t vote for a candidate in his or her mid-70s, especially since recent ballot tests have shown the two oldest names tested, Biden and Sanders, leading the pack.
Not the norm
But Trump is not Eisenhower, Nixon, Reagan or George H.W. Bush.
He is relatively new to elective politics, and he has a certain kind of charisma — at least to about 40 percent of the public. And unlike Nixon in 1960 and Bush in 1992, Trump doesn’t yet represent the status quo, even though he is the incumbent.
His entire message is about disruption, destroying the “deep state” and sticking it to the elite and the establishment.
That means Trump might not be as vulnerable to some form of “change” message as Nixon and Bush 41 were.
There is another side to that coin, of course. Polls consistently show a plurality (often a majority) of voters won’t vote to re-elect Trump next year, and the enthusiastic response among Democrats to O’Rourke and Buttigieg can’t be ignored.
Neither man is a typical politician or presidential hopefuls, and they have different styles. The Texan asks a lot of questions but provides few answers (at this point), while Buttigieg has been more combative against Trump and explicit about his views and personal values.
Harris remains the most interesting case. The California senator (and former state attorney general) is relatively new to national politics, having been elected in 2016, and has plenty of charisma.
Half Tamil (Indian) and half Jamaican, she is a woman of color who projects a knowledgeable and substantive view of politics and policy.
She will certainly have great appeal among women and nonwhites, two demographic groups that are crucial to winning her party’s nomination next year and to turning out base voters next November.
But would she do better than Hillary Clinton did among white, working-class voters, particularly in the Great Lakes states?
Depending on the economy, the Democrats may be able to run a basic “change” message in 2020. But party strategists can’t count on that being enough.
They may well need a nominee, and a ticket, that can offer a much bigger message about the future and what kind of country most voters want this to be.
In theory, any of the candidates can offer that kind of message, since Trump’s America is so different from what we have come to expect over the last six decades, from both parties.
Democrats need to figure out who can best deliver that message and inspire voters — Democrats, independents and non-Trump Republicans — about the future and what form that “change” message takes.
Note: This column appeared initially in the April 2, 2019 issue of Roll Call.