Democrats need to bring retirement back to politics
Since the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, there has been a muted undercurrent of recriminations over her deciding not to resign back in 2013 or so, when Democrats still controlled the Senate and the presidency. Many people, reportedly including President Obama, urged her and Stephen Breyer to do so at the time, for obvious reasons — especially given that she had already had cancer twice by 2009. Whoops!
However, Ginsburg is far from the only elderly Democrat to stay in office long after she should have made way for fresh blood. Virtually the entire Democratic Party leadership is well past the traditional retirement age, some by over a decade, and many of them are showing their age.
It's time to bring retirement back to Democratic politics.
Here are the members of the Democratic leadership who are over 65 years old: Presidential nominee Joe Biden is 77, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi is 80, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer is 81, House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn is 80, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer is 69, and Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin is 75.
On the four most powerful committees on the House side, Appropriations chair Nita Lowey is 83, Ways and Means chair Richard Neal is 71, Judiciary chair Jerry Nadler is 73, and Foreign Affairs chair Eliot Engel is 73. To be fair, Lowey is not running for re-election this year, and Engel was defeated in his primary by Jamaal Bowman. But (assuming the Democrats retain control of the House) that will only move Marcy Kaptur and Brad Sherman into the top slots, who will be 74 and 66 respectively during the next Congress. On the corresponding Senate committees, Appropriations ranking member Pat Leahy is 80, Finance ranking member Ron Wyden is 71, Judiciary ranking member Dianne Feinstein is 87, and Foreign Relations ranking member Bob Menendez is 66.
There is just one single person under 65 who can be plausibly said to be among the party's top ranks: vice-presidential nominee Kamala Harris, who will be 56 if inaugurated — still older than about two-thirds of past presidents when they took office. Counting all the top Democrats on the 45 traditional committees in both the House and Senate, just eight of them are younger than 65, and only three younger than 60.
This is frankly a disaster. Now, ageist discrimination is a bad thing, and all older Americans should of course be respected and have a decent standard of living. But the plain fact is that as people get older, their mental acuity and capacity for work declines. Even completely healthy people experience significant brain changes as they age, and thus tend to have increasing problems with learning, memory, and executive function. (Incidentally, Democrats are reportedly worried that Feinstein will bungle the upcoming Supreme Court confirmation hearings because she is so old.) And many people do not remain healthy into their old age — the risk of mental diseases like Alzheimer's or dementia, or other illnesses like cancer or heart disease, increase drastically as one gets older. A politician or judge suddenly dying or being forced to retire for medical reasons can be disastrous, as we've just seen with Ginsburg.
Of course there is great variety in how people age, and a political faction can do just fine with a few graybeards hanging on — indeed, such people can be an important source of institutional memory and wisdom. But the situation in the House, where the entire top leadership is 80 and up, is grotesquely irresponsible. One reason the House leadership has been so reluctant to seriously challenge Trump's corruption is ideology, but age surely has something to do with it as well. "A leadership composed of exhausted, out-of-touch, elderly party lifers, hoping things get better on their own while the country goes to pot" is a pretty good description of both the Democrats in 2020 and the Communist Party of the Soviet Union during the late 1970s and '80s.
Moreover, any sensible, responsible politician in their later years should be thinking about successors. That's not just good political stewardship, but a key way to preserve one's political legacy — by bringing up some protégés. (Former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is a rare recent example of a Democrat taking this duty seriously.) If and when Pelosi retires (as she has promised to do in 2022), there is likely to be a bruising political slug match to replace her, as she has no heir apparent and all her top lieutenants are also ancient.
Now, it's true that during his runs for president, I supported Bernie Sanders, who is the ranking member of the Senate Budget Committee and 78 years old. But while he seemed then and now to be quite sprightly for someone his age, of course I would have preferred someone much younger, all things equal. There simply wasn't another candidate with his politics and record.
So what might be done? There is always a legal option, like a mandatory retirement age for all federal officeholders — banning people from staying in Congress, the presidency, or the federal courts past, say, 70. Many states and the U.S. military already have such policies. But a simpler option might also be for Democrats to re-establish a norm of retirement. It was beyond preposterous for Feinstein to run for another term through 2024 when she will be 91. The party should have eased her out, and she should have recognized it was time. One's golden years should be spent relaxing on the beach, not in a desperate and undignified attempt to cling to power as long as possible.