As the presidential election season progresses, John McCain will have to make educated guesses about which issues the Democratic nominee uses to attack him. One he won't have to guess about is his age. The Democrats are already pounding him on it.
Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean has hit him on it. Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., himself 75 years old, has gone after him over it. And even Barack Obama has zinged him a bit. No matter their public pronouncements, the Democrats expect the margin of victory for this race — like the ones in 2000 and 2004 — to be razor thin. So they are going to exploit any advantage. Perceived or real.
Unfortunately for them, McCain's age may actually prove to be a net-plus for his presidential campaign. Let me explain.
Back in 1996, when my former boss and friend Bob Dole ran against then-President Bill Clinton, the age card was played wildly and often. Sidney Blumenthal, an aide to Clinton not known for subtlety, made fun of the bumper sticker that read, "Dole in '96" by saying "Dole is 96." While a joke, it was meant to raise doubts, and for more than a few voters it surely did.
Like McCain will be if elected, Dole was 72 years of age at the time. However, 72 against highly experienced Bill Clinton back in 1996 is not nearly the same as 72 now against the highly inexperienced Barack Obama or the slightly experienced Hillary Clinton. Especially when you factor in a post-Sept. 11, 2001, world.
This time around, white hair, 70-plus years of age and a decorated military record may be just what the doctor ordered. As the world spins more out of control, and as our own domestic situation grows more uncertain, John McCain's age may prove more reassuring than worrisome to voters.
Contrary to what some political experts may be saying, the American electorate is astute — and up on its current events. Voters recognize that terrorism is not only the defining issue of our time, but one that will most likely be with them for the rest of their lives. That said, most of these voters know that McCain is death on a cracker when it comes to terrorism. They also know that a large part of that mind-set comes from the wisdom of age combined with his real-world experience.
In conversations I've had with past Pentagon colleagues as well as some of the current crop, a recurring worry has been relayed to me. It is this: If Obama or Hillary wins the White House, what happens to the Bush doctrine of basically killing these terrorists where they stand?
The biggest fear of many of these Pentagon and military officials is a fully reconstituted al-Qaida — or other terrorist organizations that have sworn to strike deep into the heart of the United States with nuclear, chemical or biological weapons. What, they wonder, will happen, if, in conjunction with weakening the Patriot Act, a President Obama or a President Hillary Clinton, decides that the Bush doctrine against terrorism is morally or ethically objectionable? Should that happen, how long before al-Qaida is back to full-strength?
With John McCain, most of these Pentagon and military officials — and most of the American people — know exactly what they are getting. If McCain is elected, they know they would be getting a president for whom war is not a theoretical or academic exercise.
They know they are getting a man who spent almost a quarter-century in the Navy, was a naval aviator, flew more than 20 combat missions over North Vietnam before being shot down, broke both arms and a leg in the crash, was severely beaten and bayoneted upon capture, was offered immediate release when the North Vietnamese learned his father was the commander of all U.S. forces in Vietnam, refused the immediate release unless all those held before him were released, was subsequently tortured up to three times a week after the refusal and was not finally released until March 1973. As for that white hair that frames McCain's head? That came with the torture, not the years.
Back in 1996, age may have been a detriment to the highly qualified and decent Dole. In 2008, his seasoned years will be McCain's ace in the hole. I'm putting my money on the "old" guy.