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Opinion: Age before beauty, but not politics

And now, the politics of age. Hey, this is important. Grow up and pay attention.

Young, left-leaning candidates are revolting against older, traditional Democrats in primary elections around the country. Meanwhile, the best-known, most talked-about potential presidential candidates are Bernie Sanders, 77; Joe Biden, 75; and Elizabeth Warren, 69.

And in the House, where the top three Democratic leaders are in hailing range of 80, there’s a certain, um, restlessness on the part of the young folks.

“I don’t care how good you are — there is a generational gap,” said Rep. Jim Himes of Connecticut. Himes, 52, is the head of the New Democrat Coalition, a caucus of moderate party members. There are a trillion of these groups in the House, but I feel safe in saying that the New Democrat Coalition is more important than, say, the Cement Caucus or the Auto Care Caucus.

We have had political generation gaps before. Back in the day, student protesters yelled, “Never trust anybody over 30!” The people who did the yelling are now in their 70s, and I dare say have a more expansive view. The current gap is much more polite. (The millennials are coming!) In the House, it seems pretty much confined to the Democratic side of the aisle.

Yet over in the Senate, only one of the six members over 80 is a Democrat. Dianne Feinstein, 85, is currently running for re-election against a 51-year-old state legislator who’s tried to claim Feinstein is out of touch without exactly mentioning her age. She’s expected to win another six-year term easily. However that won’t bring her close to the Senate longevity record. That belongs to Strom Thurmond, who retired in 2003 at age 100, and is mainly remembered as a horrible racist. Being old does not necessarily make you mellow.

We saw a lot of the generational divide last week in the Senate Judiciary Committee. Critics from the left howled when Feinstein — the top-ranking Democrat — apologized to Brett Kavanaugh when the hearing on his Supreme Court nomination was disrupted by protesters. Feinstein is a centrist from the old school, which generally means more politeness and less twittering.

The age situation in the House is a definite problem. Nancy Pelosi, the minority leader, is 78. She’s a fundraiser of manic capacity and energy, and a truly formidable leader. However, the Republicans have made her the symbol of All That Is Evil In Washington, and a lot of the Democrats running in swing districts are vowing to vote against her if they’re elected. Part of this is pure, scaredy-cat ambition. If you want to get points for being Not A Liberal, what’s easier than disavowing Pelosi?

But part of the uprising is Pelosi’s own fault. She has been the top Democrat in the House for 16 years. Her two deputy leaders are 78 and 79, and the party is captive of a seniority system that would make a 52-year-old like Himes, with a mere nine years in the House, despair.

“I think I’ll be 184 before I’m in range of being Financial Services chairman,” said Himes in a phone interview. If the Democrats take control in 2019, the head of the Financial Services Committee would presumably be the current ranking member, Maxine Waters, 80.

The average age of members of Congress has been slowly rising for years. And as long as there’s a mixture of young and old leaders, that’s fine — even natural. People just live longer. And whether they’re 40 or 90 (go for it, Ruth Bader Ginsburg) they can still be great at their jobs.

Nobody’s better proof that age doesn’t matter than our current president. Donald Trump is 72, but he was already terrible when he was 50. It’s just that back then, we didn’t notice him much. Really miss those good old days.

Writes for the New York Times.

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