Too old to govern? The age problem neither US party wants to talk about

The question was simple: what are your thoughts about running for re-election in 2026? “Oh,” said Mitch McConnell with a half-chuckle, a mumble and then: silence. The most powerful Republican in the US Senate stared into space and said nothing for more than 30 seconds.

It was the second time in little more than a month that 81-year-old McConnell had frozen while speaking to reporters. But there were few voices in the Democratic party calling on him to step down.

Related: Mitch McConnell cleared for work by congressional doctor after freezing

The question of age is one that both party establishments in America have cause to avoid.

Democrat Joe Biden, 80, is the oldest president in American history. Republican Donald Trump, 77, is the second oldest and current frontrunner for the party nomination in 2024. The Senate, average age 64, has one of the oldest memberships of any parliamentary body in the world. It is small wonder that dealing with America’s drift into gerontocracy is not top of its agenda.

“Both political parties are pulling their punches,” said Frank Luntz, a political consultant who has worked on many Republican campaigns. “Democrats have been quiet about McConnell because they know their own party is run by someone who has the same challenges McConnell has.”

If he wins re-election, Biden would be 86 by the end of his second term; a recent opinion poll found that more than three in four Americans think he would be too old to be effective. This week the Guardian reported a claim in a new book that the president has privately admitted he is occasionally tired.

Critics faulted Biden’s response to recent wildfires in Maui, Hawaii, and described a speech he gave there as rambling. He mangled the names of Senator Brian Schatz and Mayor Rick Bissen and, in one odd digression, told the latter: “Rick, when we talked on the phone, I never – you look like you played in defensive tackle for – I don’t know who, but somebody good.”

John Zogby, an author and pollster, said: “In all honesty I’ve been a fan of Joe Biden and have tried to overlook some of the missteps but I did see him in Maui and that was troubling. He got to the microphone and started making jokes and then repeated himself three times between his unprepared remarks and prepared remarks. He just did not look good.”

Joe Biden’s speech in Maui was criticised as rambling.

Joe Biden’s speech in Maui was criticised as rambling. Photograph: Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

When McConnell suffered his second freezing episode while talking to reporters in Kentucky, Biden was quick to defend the “friend” he served with in the Senate. He said: “I’m confident he’s going to be back to his old self.” Asked if he had any concerns about McConnell’s ability to do his job, the president replied: “No.” Asked again, he insisted: “I don’t.”

The congressional doctor has cleared McConnell – who tripped in March and was hospitalised for a concussion and minor rib fracture – to continue his duties. But observers increasingly question Washington’s octogenarian rule.

Mitch McConnell appears to freeze up for more than 30 seconds during a public appearance before being escorted away last month.

Mitch McConnell appears to freeze up for more than 30 seconds during a public appearance before being escorted away last month. Photograph: Abc Affiliate Wcpo/Reuters

Larry Jacobs, director of the Center for the Study of Politics and Governance at the University of Minnesota, said: “It’s lIke both parties are being led by decrepit leaders. Frankly, if there were people in the wings who could step forward, there would have been an effort.

“But in the Democratic party, if Biden’s not the candidate, it’s a free-for-all and in the Senate, if McConnell’s not the leader, the wings of the party are going to bash each other: there’s the Trump supporters and there’s the let’s-move-past-Trump. That’s what’s keeping Biden and McConnell in place: the venomous battles that would ensue as soon as they step down.”

This standoff creates a headache for party strategists on both sides going into next year’s elections. Jacobs added: “What’s going on here is handcuffing the Democratic communications masters. The talking points for going after McConnell just get turned around on Biden. The Republicans want to move past McConnell because going after Biden’s age is one of their very few talking points at this stage.”

There have been no such inhibitions for rightwing media, including Fox News hosts such as Sean Hannity. Some dissident voices have also emerged in both parties. Dean Phillips, a Democratic congressman from Minnesota, has called on the president to retire because of his weak poll numbers and advanced age. Phillips told the Washington Post newspaper: “God forbid the president has a health episode or something happens in the middle of a primary.”

In response to the McConnell incident, Phillips wrote on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter: “For goodness sake, the family, friends, and staff of Senators Feinstein and McConnell are doing them and our country a tremendous disservice. It’s time for term limits for Congress and the Supreme Court, and some basic human decency.”

Meanwhile Republican candidates for president such as Nikki Haley, 51, former governor of South Carolina, and Vivek Ramaswamy, a 38-year-old biotech entrepreneur, have called for generational change. Haley, who has called for mental competency tests for candidates over 75, told the Fox News network: “What I will say is, right now, the Senate is the most privileged nursing home in the country. I mean, Mitch McConnell has done some great things, and he deserves credit. But you have to know when to leave.”

Such talking points could strike a chord with the public. Six in 10 Americans told a Reuters/Ipsos poll last November that they were very or somewhat concerned that members of Congress are too old to represent the American people.

Senator Dianne Feinstein, 90, sits in a wheelchair on the Senate subway on Capitol Hill in July.

Senator Dianne Feinstein sits in a wheelchair on the Senate subway on Capitol Hill in July. Photograph: Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

The oldest current senator, Dianne Feinstein of California, is 90 and was absent for months earlier this year after she suffered complications from shingles; she has said she will retire at the end of her term next year. Senator Bernie Sanders, the voice of progressives in the past two Democratic primaries, turns 82 next week. Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa turns 90 later this month. A rematch between Biden and Trump appears the most likely scenario next year.

Donald Trump, 77.

Donald Trump, 77. Photograph: Ed Jones/AFP/Getty Images

Sally Quinn, a journalist and author, noted the strategic quandaries for both parties. “Donald Trump is going to be 78 next year so the Republicans don’t exactly have a spring chicken on their lineup and are reluctant to go after Biden for his age when Trump is getting up there.

“It doesn’t help any of them to and it makes them look ungracious and unkind and unsympathetic, even though they’re all rolling their eyes privately and saying, ‘Oh, my God, they’ve got to go, they’ve got got to go.’ There isn’t anybody who’s not rolling their eyes over Dianne Feinstein. And the Democrats worry about Joe Biden: they think he’s done a great job and they like him but they also see that he’s 80, 81, and that’s old.”

Quinn was married to the late Ben Bradlee, who retired as editor of the Washington Post in 1991 at the age of 70. “He was asked to stay and he said, I want to go out at the top, I don’t want to be hanging around here and hear them saying, ‘Oh my God, poor old Bradlee’s really losing it,’ and so he went out on top. With my blessing, by the way – a lot of the spouses don’t want to lose the power and the influence.”

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