Donald Trump isn’t subtle about telegraphing what he believes is his best line of attack against Joe Biden: the Democratic front-runner’s advanced age.
But Democrats are beginning to publicly talk about it themselves.
In overt and indirect ways, questions about the former vice president’s age and vigor are increasingly surfacing within his own party, fueled by the former vice president’s relatively light campaign schedule and attempts to limit his public exposure. If elected, Biden would be 78 upon entering the White House — making him the oldest president ever to take the office.
“It’s the 78-year-old elephant in the room,” said Miami-based consultant and pollster Fernand Amandi, who consulted for the Obama-Biden campaigns in 2008 and 2012 and is unaffiliated with any 2020 campaign.
“There is no question that what has propelled Vice President Biden to clear front-runner status is his unparalleled experience in contrast to his primary counterparts, but am I hearing gargantuan concerns among Democratic insiders about Biden’s advanced age, which is the very byproduct of that experience derived from a lifetime of public service? Absolutely, yes.”
In a field in which six of the 23 Democrats running for president are over 65, no Democrat is willing to go as far as Trump — who turns 73 on Friday — who frequently denigrates Biden’s energy and stamina.
The door to the Democrats’ discussion opened wider last week amid a deluge of criticism for Biden’s flip-flop on the Hyde Amendment, which essentially banned publicly funded abortions.
Biden’s new position brought him in line with other Democrats in the race. But his unsteady handling of the issue suggested he was out of touch with party activists and served to highlight how long he had been in politics — the Hyde Amendment was first approved 43 years ago when Biden, in the Senate at the time, voted for it.
David Axelrod, former adviser to President Barack Obama, told POLITICO that Biden’s back-and-forth on the Hyde Amendment was a “bad look” in light of a background narrative surrounding his age.
“When you are 76 and age is in question, you don’t want to be in a situation where your campaign says you ‘misheard’ the question,” Axelrod said. “[T]his kind of story will raise issues.”
If he won in 2020, Biden would be eight years older than the oldest president ever to take office — Donald Trump, Axelrod emphasized. And he’d be two years older than the life expectancy for a male in the United States.
“This is one reason I think they’ve kept him on a relatively leisurely pace on the campaign trail and away from some of the major events and away from reporters, frankly, because they are worried about things just such as the one we have just seen,” Axelrod said in a separate interview on CNN.
Pete Buttigieg, who’s rising in primary polls, has taken several subtle swipes at Biden and the older candidates in the race. As one of the youngest hopefuls in the race, the 37-year-old mayor of South Bend, Ind., has made generational appeals central to his campaign.
“I think our party is certainly ready to lift up leaders from a new generation,” Buttigieg said in a May interview on the “Today Show.” “The exciting thing is that I think this race will create a fair playing field where people who’ve been in the public sphere for longer than I’ve been alive and people like me get to compete on the basis of our ideas.”
The use of coded generational language to attack an older politician without mentioning age directly is a tactic that Biden himself successfully employed as a 29-year-old challenger in his first U.S. Senate race against incumbent Cale Boggs in 1972. Boggs was 63 at the time.
Biden acknowledges that there are questions about his age, and has sought to parry them by pointing to his physical appearance and public performances.
When asked about Trump’s criticisms of his age and vitality Tuesday by a reporter, Biden leaned in toward his questioner.
“Look at me and answer the question,” Biden said.
When pressed to answer himself, he said: “It’s self-evident. You know it’s a ridiculous assertion on his part. But anyway, look, people have a right to question all of our ages. It’s a totally legitimate thing. All I can say is watch me. Just watch me.”
The next day, at an event in Clinton, Iowa, spoke off the cuff to an audience for more than 40 minutes.
Still, one Biden campaign fundraiser said his age is a concern that the campaign is attempting to manage.
“Of course, we’re going to call any of this criticism ‘ageist’ and counterattack Trump as a madman because he is and everyone knows Joe is a thousand times better than Trump,” the fundraiser said. “But yeah, Joe’s older. It’s harder. And this is a sprint. It’s not a marathon.”
The campaign, the source said, is “easing him in and we’re not going to tire him out because the fact of the matter is that we don’t have to. We’re winning in the primary. We’re beating Trump in the general.”
Biden hasn’t helped his cause with his use of outdated cultural references and his practice of regaling audiences with anecdotes about long-dead senators he worked with — such as North Carolina’s Jesse Helms, South Carolina’s Strom Thurmond and Louisiana’s Russell Long, whom he mentioned at a Miami fundraiser in May that left some donors scratching their heads.
In South Carolina last month, Biden dropped references to former Nixon-Ford national security adviser/Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and then said that Margaret Thatcher, the former British prime minister who died in 2013, was worried about President Trump. Biden corrected himself and then said he meant Theresa May.
Occasionally, Biden will catch himself looking back too far, such as when he talks about the 1951 Plymouth he used to drive in high school.
“That was old even for me then,” Biden joked in Dubuque during his first visit to Iowa.
The long-term danger for Biden is that polls and focus groups suggest the age issue is a liability in the minds of some voters.
According to the most recent Morning Consult poll, voters express some hesitation about a candidate older than 70. But they also view Biden’s experience as his best asset — 72 percent say they are more likely to support Biden because of his experience as vice president and senator.
A Reuters/Ipsos poll released Monday indicated that Biden, Trump and 77-year-old Sen. Bernie Sanders could face some resistance because of their ages, with 48 percent of Americans saying they would be less likely to support a presidential candidate older than 70.
Though older than Biden, Sanders hasn’t generated the same volume of discussion about his age. He has had a more aggressive campaign schedule than Biden, speaks in a more animated style and was even seen marching with McDonald’s workers last week in support of higher wages.
Joe Trippi, a Democratic campaign veteran, said Biden in the first months of the campaign escaped public discussion of his age partly because his main opponent, Sanders, is older than he is and also because the race became a debate about the centrist vs. progressives. But with Buttigieg rising, along with middle-aged candidates like California Sen. Kamala Harris, 54, and former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke, 46, the race could turn into a contest of new vs. old.
Biden, Trippi said, needs to start picking up the pace and engaging more with voters in early states like Iowa, where he began a five-event, two-day swing Tuesday,.
“Anybody who doesn’t put the time in on the ground is putting their candidacy at risk. In Iowa, people will start wondering, particularly if other candidates and people like Axelrod are raising the issue of age,” Trippi said. “If he doesn’t notch things up, it’s only a matter of time before his opponents or the pundits dig in and start leaning into issues like age.”
But to progressive critics of Biden like consultant Rebecca Katz, it might be too late for the candidate to change perceptions.
“People go to hear Uncle Joe and wind up seeing Grandpa Joe,” said Katz, noting that fellow Democrats who have seen Biden speaking at campaign events and come away believing that he’s not the same vigorous politician many remember. “The Joe Biden of 2019 is not the same Joe Biden of 2008, and anyone who has seen him on the stump or even reads the transcripts of one of his recent speeches can see that.”
Yet that wasn’t the experience of Mike Sly, an undecided voter who saw Biden speak Tuesday in Davenport, Iowa. Like more than a dozen potential caucusgoers interviewed at Biden’s Iowa events, he said he didn’t see age as an issue.
“I’m almost 65, I don’t feel like I’m going to keel over,” Sly said.
Edward Nydle, a Sanders supporter, said he decided to go see Biden after his son, who is a Buttigieg supporter, had seen Biden deliver a foreign policy speech and told his dad to check him out.
“I think that anyone who mentions age with him [Biden] or Bernie Sanders, that’s age discrimination. I know people his age, Bernie’s age; I know a woman who’s in her 90s who has more energy than Donald Trump does,” Nydle said.
When told that other Democrats raised questions about Biden’s age and vigor, he said: “I think they’re wrong. I’ve seen Bernie running through airports to catch planes. It doesn’t bother me, but I think they’re overemphasizing that too much. With age comes wisdom and experience that’s how I see it.”