May 2, 2023 | Reading Time: 3 minutes
When Republican candidates talk about how old Joe Biden is, they are not talking about how he is
Don’t get distracted.
The more GOP candidates raise the issue of Joe Biden’s age (80), the more the president’s allies, among the Democrats and normal Democratic voters, are likely to defend him, almost certainly with some kind of warm pap about age being only a state of mind. Age, however, is not only a state of mind.
Especially not in a job so stressful it rapidly accelerates aging. George W. Bush looked young when he began. He looked old when he was done. Ditto for Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. With a huge head start, Biden’s oldness is getting faster daily. (Donald Trump may have escaped such consequences; he never bothered to take leadership seriously.)
When Nikki Haley, former ambassador to the United Nations under Trump, who is running for the GOP’s nomination against her former boss, said we’d likely see Joe Biden die in five years, there could be heard a giant gasping sound followed by a deafening clutching of pearls. But c’mon. Everyone shuffles off this mortal coil. Death, being humanity’s common denominator, is no reason not to vote for Biden.
Fortunately, Haley agrees.
Just ask her.
Haley was not, as headlines variously reported, going “after Biden’s age.” She did not “mock” his age. She did not take a “swipe” at his age. Biden’s age was secondary to Haley’s goal, which was reminding audiences that in the event of the old man’s death, his second-in-charge takes over.
Meaning, a 58-year-old biracial woman. “If you vote for Joe Biden you really are counting on a President Harris,” she said. “The idea that he would make it until 86 years old is not something that I think is likely.”
Wanting to defend Biden’s elderliness is understandable. But his age isn’t relevant to his opponents. What’s relevant is Kamala Harris’s race and sex. Let’s not help them by taking their words seriously. Let’s embrace the moment’s complexity. Anyway, we don’t have a choice.
The president is running for reelection. He will be the Democratic Party’s nominee. (Pay no attention to marginal alternatives.) Trump is running, too. He will almost certainly be the Republican Party’s nominee. (Haley knows she has a snowball’s chance.) So far, 2024 is already set as a repeat of 2020. In any other context, Biden’s age totally matters. In this context, nah. He’s the best and, therefore, only choice.
But with a different context comes a different set of problems – and this is where Haley’s comments come to the fore. Right now, the president’s allies are all about defending him. They should defend him. But old presidents die at politically inconvenient moments. (The last one to die on the job of natural causes was Franklin Delano Roosevelt, deep into America’s involvement in the Second World War.) We should think about that possibility. It’s no reason not to vote for Biden. It’s a reason to prepare for what’s to come in case he dies in office.
If Biden dies in office, Harris will become the first woman president. She will become the first biracial woman president. She will become something no one has ever been in this country. In the history of American politics, that outcome will be second only to Barack Obama’s 2008 victory (second only, because she would not have been elected).
Time would tell whether the white-power backlash against a President Harris would be as strong as the one against the first Black president. But let’s be clear: Given what we know about American politics and history, there’s no question there will be a white-power reaction.
Along with that will be, almost certainly, a white-liberal reaction. I say “almost certainly” because we saw such a two-tiered outcome after 2008. While the racists and revanchists dug in, turning away from democracy and toward political violence, white liberals pat themselves on the back for establishing a foundation for a “post-racial America.”
“Post-racial America” was a lovely bit of liberal propaganda. The only thing real about it was the way it made white liberals feel. While they were busy feeling good, they lost focus on a Republican Party that was turning away from democracy. By 2016, many Americans, not just white liberals, believed voting for Donald Trump couldn’t possibly be that bad.
I don’t believe history repeats itself. I believe conditions change, and from them arise new problems. But we’d be fools not to consider what might happen if Biden died in office and Harris became something no one in this country’s history has ever been. We’d also be fools for thinking we can avoid this by voting for a Democrat other than Biden. Death is no reason not to vote for him. Anyway, we don’t have a choice.
John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.