The oldest member of Congress, 91-year-old Rep. Ralph Hall (R-TX), narrowly lost his primary runoff Tuesday night. His opponent, former U.S. Attorney John Ratcliffe, and a super PAC explicitly made the incumbent’s age an issue in the campaign — a common tactic against older candidates. According to several political and media experts, in a country where incumbency is generally an advantage to politicians, challengers frequently attempt to play on a youth-centered culture in order to turn experience from an asset to a liability.
Now or Never PAC, a Missouri-based super PAC, spent at least $100,000 on ads against Hall, reminding viewers that he was first elected when Jimmy Carter was president in 1980. The ads, which aired prior to Hall’s recent 91st birthday, showed images of the Congressman today and noted, “Now he’s 90, the oldest member in Congress ever.” The spot concluded with an image of a rocking chair and the words, “Times have changed. After 34 years, let’s bring Ralph Hall home.” Ratcliffe himself defended the issue of Hall’s age as “fair” for voters to consider.
Watch the ad:
The message of these attacks: because the incumbent’s age is a large number and because he or she looks older now than when first elected, it is time essentially to put them out to pasture. By even hinting that the older opponent is no longer fully lucid or able to meet the rigors of the job, these attacks often make age — rather than issues, records, or ideas — a main campaign issue.
Mary Boyle, vice president for communications at Common Cause, told ThinkProgress that these ads can be effective. “The fact is we live in a youth-obsessed culture, where people go to extremes to hide the physical effects of aging,” she said. “Age in a campaign is an easy target, and it has a certain resonance with voters because nearly everyone knows or has an elderly relative who has struggled with health problems and has a sense of what that looks like.”
Though she is just 66, a quarter of a century younger than Hall, possible 2016 presidential contender Hillary Clinton has faced similar attacks on her age by Republican strategist Karl Rove in recent weeks. After insinuating that the former Secretary of State might have suffered some sort of traumatic brain injury that could prevent her from becoming president, Rove said on Fox News on Monday that Clinton would be seen as “old and stale” by 2016. Conservatives and media analysts have made a similar argument about 71-year-old Vice President Joe Biden.
Rove’s provocative strategy is deliberate, says Washington State University professor Dr. Travis N. Ridout, who co-directs the Wesleyan Media Project. “Inevitably, you get called on it by someone in the news media,” when you launch attacks on a candidates’ age, he told ThinkProgress, “but when they call you on it, that reinforces the original message: that the candidate is old and feeble.” Now, if Clinton “says something stupid, fumbles, or trips, it plays into that narrative. Maybe she is too old for this — aren’t most people retiring at 65?”
The line of attack has been used in this campaign cycle against incumbents from both parties. Last week, the vice chairman of the Mississippi Tea Party and two others were arrested in connection with a series of photos illegally taken at a nursing home of Sen. Sen. Thad Cochran’s (R-MS) bedridden wife. The photos were used in a video aimed at supporting Cochran’s primary challenger, State Sen. Chris McDaniel, implying that the 76-year-old incumbent was too old to serve because he has an ailing wife. Milton Wolf (R), a primary challenger to 78-year-old Sen. Pat Roberts of Kansas, has run ads showing Roberts aging over his 47 years as a legislative aide, Congressman, and U.S. Senator and suggesting that it is “time we give career politician Pat Roberts permanent access to his La-Z-Boy recliner.” In an ad called, “Tomorrow,” 37-year-old Democrat Ro Khanna used a slightly more subtle approach, quoting a newspaper editorial that described 72-year-old incumbent Rep. Mike Honda (D-CA) as “a politician of the past” and calling it “time to put the old politics aside.”
These sorts of attacks are nothing new in American politics. “Reagan faced criticisms based on his age, notably in his 1984 campaign where he somewhat famously made it an advantage during a debate. McCain faced similar — if not more explicit — anti-age sentiment,” Dr. Jacob Groshek, a professor of emerging media studies at Boston University, observed in an interview with ThinkProgress. While the attack is generally unfair, he noted, “the question of age is often framed as a matter of whether or not a candidate is fit to serve, both physically and mentally, and so in that sense the health of a candidate is a valid concern for voters to weigh.”
Job discrimination based on age is not exclusive to politics, Ohio University professor Dr. Benjamin R. Bates told ThinkProgress. “We see this cultural assumption that young is better than old, and that young strong bodies must contain young strong minds, in many sectors. Probably the tech sector is where this emerges most clearly; there was a recent Silicon Valley study that found that young people without qualifications were 3 to 5 times more likely to be hired at venture capital firms than middle-aged people with qualifications,” he observed, adding, “We also see it in films and tv shows where women (but not men) of a ‘certain age’ move from being the lead to being the older friend or mother. Politics is likely to reflect the same assumptions.” While it is difficult to defend against ageist assumptions, Bates noted, Reagan’s 1984 response effectively reminded voters that “‘age’ is another word for ‘experience,’ and that [his] knowledge and abilities in the White House should be valued.”
While the age issue is nothing new, the way it is wielded politically has evolved with the changing times. Since the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United ruling opened the floodgates for outside ads, it is easier than ever for groups like Now or Never PAC to use demagoguery, even if the candidate they are supporting does not think it’s fair game. “In the past, the candidate might himself think twice about launching that type of attack against an opponent,” Dr. Ridout noted. But, an outside group can say “whatever they want to do – even if the candidate they’re supporting doesn’t want them to make that attack. If this outside group comes in and drops the bomb, candidates have no control over that.”
Common Cause’s Mary Boyle agreed, pointing out that campaigns “seem to get nastier and more coarse every election cycle. The flood of outside money and the prevalence of outside groups only exacerbates this. A Super PAC with a meaningless name, backed by anonymous donors, can level a far more pointed, mean-spirited attack than a candidate would, while allowing the candidate to stay above the fray.”
But Anne Barth, who served as state director for the late Sen. Robert Byrd (D-WV) until 2010, told ThinkProgress that the nine-term Senator’s mind was “keen” until his death at age 92. “I think America is a country that celebrates youth,” she noted, and “we need to often be reminded to respect the wisdom of our elders.” While noting that each case is different, she recalled that Byrd continued to “serve West Virginia’s people for a long time and do it very very well,” because he “embodied the saying that with age comes wisdom” and he “never stopped learning.”