Saturday, May 10, 2008

The Age of McCain

I have to admit that I am puzzled by McCain's strategy on how to deal with his age issue. There are two recent past examples of the age problem in presidential politics: Reagan and Dole. The conventional wisdom is that Dole's age was one of the issues that killed his candidacy, but it didn't cause Reagan any serious problem at all. We all remember Reagan's swift comeback when the issue came up in a televised debate with Mondale, and that seemed to be a watershed moment for his campaign. It is also true that they showed him working out with weights and doing other vigorous physical activity. His hair, magically, never showed even a strand of grayness, and he denied that it was unnaturally colored. He wasn't a war hero, and he didn't seem very religious, but people bought him anyway. Dole didn't manage to put the issue behind him, although he was a war hero. He came to be a symbol for an aging politician, and he ended up doing Viagra commercials after he lost the election.

McCain now faces that age hurdle, but his only winning strategy so far is to trot out his aging mother to show what good genes he has. We don't see clips of him doing any vigorous exercise, as we did with Reagan. We don't seem him jogging in any parks. Instead, we see a classic rapid-response technique. They are all primed and ready to go for Obama to start making comments about his age. So, when Obama made a "lost his bearings" comment, they immediately fired back with a sharp criticism. Unfortunately, they seemed to have jumped the gun, because Obama's comment was about McCain's ethical bearings, a charge that could be leveled at any politician including even Obama himself. The quick-fire response method was honed by Bill Clinton in his successful political campaigns, so it was a reasonable thing to try. The thing is that it just reminded everyone that age is an issue, and unnecessarily so. In fact, McCain jokes about his age frequently--perhaps to try to recapture that Reagan moment when a quip deflated the whole issue. In McCain's case, however, those continual quips now serve to remind voters that they need to keep focusing on his age. Is McCain going to be able to get around this issue, or is he just going to keep making it worse?

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