Thursday’s presidential debate was the perfect capstone to a roughly 12-month period that has given us former Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell zoning out in press conferences, and the late Dianne Feinstein, who was a Democratic senator from California, being confused as to what to do in a committee meeting.

McConnell, still in the Senate, is 82. Feinstein was 90.

But then, the average age of a senator is 64.

When he announced he would not seek a second term in the Senate, Utah’s Mitt Romney said, “At the end of another term, I’d be in my mid-80s. Frankly, it’s time for a new generation of leaders.”

That qualifies as an amazing sense of both self-awareness and mortality in a job that apparently lends itself to neither. Lots of Americans long for the simple pleasures of retirement. Politicians seem extra prone to the delusion that makes them think the nation will crumble without their leadership.

I once had one of them express that to me out loud, with a straight face.

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Thursday night, Americans watched 81-year-old President Joe Biden act his age. Many of us have experienced elderly loved ones fumbling their words, losing a train of thought or speaking in a raspy voice.

Human beings age at their own, unique pace. Not all who are 81 act as the president did on the debate stage, but when the person doing so is the most powerful person in the free world, who will be counted on to react to a crisis or make quick decisions, it’s alarming. So really, the question isn’t about a specific, identifiable age. It’s about how age is affecting each person.

And, lest people think this is a partisan commentary, former President Donald Trump is not off the hook, either. He may have sounded quick and decisive compared with Biden, even though many of his answers were peppered with what could charitably be called half-truths and falsehoods, but he is 78. It’s appropriate to wonder how he will age over the next four years.

All of which brings us back to a question that dominated political discussions less than a year ago. Should there be an age limit to elected service in Washington?

Most of you think so. A poll conducted for the Deseret News and the Hinckley Institute of Politics in October found 64% in favor of such a thing. But when it comes to the details, things get muddy.

When asked what the maximum age should be, the largest group, 48%, said 70. But 22% said 80, 15% said 60, and even 2% said 90. The confusion likely stems from personal experience. Many of us have known people who function exceptionally well in their 90s, and people who show signs of advanced age in their 60s.

Politicians aren’t likely to vote to eliminate their own power at a certain age. As a practical matter, that is left up to political parties. What the nation witnessed Thursday (at one point, the debate degenerated into two old men arguing about their golf games) was a failure of political parties being honest with themselves and the public.

Opinion: Should politicians have an age limit?

The inability to serve cannot be predicted by age alone. In 1919, President Woodrow Wilson suffered a severe stroke that left him incapacitated. His handlers were less than honest with Congress and the public, and historians have argued over whether his wife, Edith, was making important decisions for him. He was only 62.


However, when power is at stake, handlers and partisans tend to ignore warning signs. Particularly if their own supporting jobs are part of the equation.

News reports after Thursday’s debate have said some Democrats now are wondering whether to replace Biden on the ticket this year. The options are few. Either Biden has to voluntarily step down, or delegates committed to him have to go rogue at the upcoming convention. But no clear alternative candidate is standing in the wings.

It’s a sad dilemma that is becoming all too common in an aging Washington. But Thursday’s debate has made that dilemma impossible to ignore.

In his 1961 inaugural address, John F. Kennedy said, “The torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans.” Apparently, that torch is tough to relinquish, but the time has come to pass it, again.

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