Whaddya Know? Being Old Wound Up Being a Plus for Joe Biden

The conventional wisdom was that age would hinder Biden but it’s turned out to be a secret weapon, one of several that’s made him the front-runner.

If Joe Biden wins (and I still think there’s a real chance he won’t), one of the most surprising reasons, in my humble opinion, will be his age. Pundits assume that Biden’s age has been a neutral to negative factor to his success. I remember even moderate Democrats wishing there were someone with his same policy views but less cognitive decline. But it’s turning out that Biden’s geezerhood has helped in a variety of ways.

HE TALKS BETTER. Yes, Biden has lost a step, but if you look at earlier Biden campaigns, he was both more fluid AND more verbose. Sleepy Joe is actually much more effective than Yappy Joe. That could just be a more disciplined campaign, but maybe he’s just too tired to talk more. In all seriousness, Biden has slowed down but just to a normal and not a pathetic level (usually). He’s more concise and more repetitive — in an effective way.

HE IGNORED TWITTER. During the primaries, the younger, hipper candidates (like Kamala Harris) misread just how far to the left the party had moved, for instance, assuming that single-payer and legalized border crossings were the center of gravity. Biden didn’t. That’s helping him tremendously now. Perhaps Biden’s advisors were especially conscious that the Twitter Left wasn’t the actual world. But I bet it didn’t hurt that the candidate wasn’t perpetually barking out reactions to Tweets he’d just seen. (Does Biden know how to use Twitter?) He has consistently had a better sense of what the political sweet spot was — for instance, during the primaries, it was Black Church Ladies in South Carolina more than it was Baristas in Brooklyn. He fastened to a few big truths — that this is a fight for ‘soul of America’ and ‘don’t forget the middle class.’ At the time, he seemed like a pol from yesteryear mouthing platitudes. Now it looks like brilliant message discipline.

HE’S SUFFERED MORE. Not to be morbid but Biden’s suffering — and his graceful response — has made him more appealing. This is often how aging works. We might imagine that older folks have more wisdom because they’ve had more time to read Thich Nhat Hanh or Augustine. But people often gain wisdom — or grace — because they’ve suffered more. People see that in Biden.

NON-SENILE SENIORS SYMPATHIZE. If Biden wins, it will be in part because he did better among seniors than Hillary did. Now being old doesn’t mean you’ll win over older voters. It doesn’t work that way. But something special happened this year. Trump made Biden’s cognitive decline a key issue in the campaign, implying that he’s senile. Here’s the reality that neither side has been willing to say: yes, of course, Biden has declined cognitively. He’s seventy-frickin’-seven! But that’s not the same as being senile.  Biden has shown that as we age, what we will lose cognitively may be more than made up for by the improvement of other traits — patience, wisdom, forgiveness, steadfastness. Biden is a poster child for old men. Of course, the bigger reason Biden is winning over seniors probably is COVID, but I do wonder whether there are elderly voters out there who resent Trump’s conflation of being old with being useless.

LOVE OF BIPARTISANSHIP. One of the main lessons Biden seems to have taken from his decades in politics is the love of bipartisanship. Almost everyone in the political class seemed to hate this about Biden. Progressive thought this made him a dupe or neoliberal neocolonialist. Trump activists don’t want to be bipartisan with Dems anyway. It seemed to be an entirely foolish, out of date message. And yet I suspect that this helped Biden quite a bit — both in permitting the Never Trumpers to fully join the campaign and in evoking an image of a less mean, less contentious future.

Obviously, if he wins, there will be many other factors that contributed (being white and being a male sadly possibly being one of them).  And, to be sure, being old would not have worked the same way with other candidates. Seventy-one-year old Elizabeth Warren, for instance, would always have been perceived as too woke rather than insufficiently awake. And if Biden loses, we’ll find plenty of age-related reasons. But for now, it seems that Biden has aged well. And — to use a phrase that was once seemed terrifying and now seems adorable – that’s no malarkey.

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Steven Waldman

Steven Waldman is the president and co-founder of Report for America, an initiative of The GroundTruth Project. He is the author of Sacred Liberty: America’s Long, Bloody, and Ongoing Struggle for Religious Freedom. As senior adviser to the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, he was the prime author of the landmark report Information Needs of Communities.