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Do We Need Age Limits for Our Political Leaders?


When Nikki Haley announced her presidential campaign back in February, one of the headline-grabbing reforms she called for was geared toward nudging a certain class of "permanent politician" to "finally retire," in her words. She suggested "term limits for Congress, and mandatory mental competency tests for politicians over 75 years old." The latter proposal was seen as a dig at both the incumbent president (80), but also his leading GOP challenger (now 77). Joe Biden's presidency has been marked by a series of physical and verbal stumbles, with a large majority of Americans telling pollsters that they harbor concerns about the president's overall health, fitness, and mental acuity. And in just the last week, we've seen footage of Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell and California Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein experiencing serious difficulties in the course of doing their jobs. 

Here was McConnell's widely-circulated public freeze-up: 

McConnell's staff said he felt light-headed in that moment; it looked to me as if he was laboring not to pass out at the podium. He's since cracked a joke about it, insisted he's fine, and says he intends to fulfill his leadership duties through the remainder of this Congress. I wish him well. It's no secret that I believe he's been an outstanding leader who gets unfairly demonized by too many on the Right – and who is understandably reviled by the Left, due to his tactical and strategic effectiveness. But he's taken a few tumbles lately, one of which kept him out of the office for weeks, as he convalesced at home. At a certain point, following a string of health-related scares and mishaps, one must focus primarily on one's well-being. While many will be praying for McConnell to experience smooth sailing moving forward, it's not unseemly to at least wonder and worry about further incidents. He needs to take care. That said, the Kentuckian at least seems to have his wits about him mentally, which – very sadly – cannot be said of the Golden State's senior senator. This was hard to watch last week:

Feinstein's aides, who sometimes appear to be making major decisions without the Senator's knowledge or full awareness, claimed she was just "preoccupied" during this painful miscue. I suppose they can't say "the Senator is 90 and sometimes gets confused about where she is and what she's doing," but that's obviously what's going on. Is it time for a hard second look at Haley's idea? I discussed the topic with Fox host David Asman this week:

DeSantis made the observation I referenced during his lengthy sit-down with Megyn Kelly. As I note in the tweet, not only is he right that Biden first "got elected as a senator before I was even born," that somehow understates the age gap. Biden was elected in the 1972 cycle. He'd served close to a full Senate term before DeSantis arrived on this earth in 1978. As for the actual policy side of this discussion, that gets trickier. It's true that the Constitution establishes age minimums for various federal offices, but age limits are a different story. There are positives and negatives to Congressional term limits (I tend to believe the benefits would outweigh the downsides), but any combination of these changes would almost certainly require constitutional amendments. That would be an exceptionally heavy lift, especially amid our polarized, paralyzed era. 

And consider this: Could arbitrary age limits for federal office-holders end up leading to a scenario in which, say, a still-whip-sharp Justice Clarence Thomas is forced into retirement early, due simply to his age? How would conservatives feel about that if he hit his age ceiling while a Democrat were president? Further, while I'm sympathetic to the idea of implementing mental competency tests in lieu of arbitrary age cut-offs, how would those be authorized, standardized, facilitated, and evaluated? These are sticky, awkward questions. I'm not saying they shouldn't be asked or debated. I'm saying they're difficult. Finally, shouldn't fundamental, threshold judgments about candidates' fitness and ability to serve be ultimately adjudicated by voters?



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