Is Hillary Clinton too old to be president?
He won’t say it outright, but that’s the question Sen. Rand Paul is getting at. “It’s a very taxing undertaking to go through. It’s a rigorous physical ordeal, I think, to be able to campaign for the presidency,” the likely Republican presidential candidate told Politico Monday.
And he’s hardly alone among Republicans in wielding Clinton’s 67 years against her. Rick Santorum called the former secretary of state “old,” Sen. Mitch McConnell compared her to a cast member from “The Golden Girls,” and Bobby Jindal called her an “old, tired candidate.” Meanwhile, longtime Clinton foe Matt Drudge accused Clinton of using a walker during a magazine cover photoshoot, and the conservative Free Beacon has had plenty of laughs at the expense of Clinton’s age.
It’s obvious why a relatively young field of Republican presidential hopefuls see benefit in painting Clinton as old, but it’s unfamiliar territory for Republicans, who are used to defending their own nominees' advanced ages.
In 1984, it was Ronald Reagan -- still the oldest president in American history -- who had to contend with age questions, especially after he stumbled in his first debate with Democrat Walter Mondale. “Sigh Ronald Reagan sigh,” was all former Clinton aide Tracy Sefl said when asked to respond to Paul.
Ed Rollins, who managed Reagan’s campaign that year, said Republican attacks on Clinton’s age could prove counterproductive. “Republicans will obviously try to make it an issue but I think those attacks won't work and may backfire. If she loses it won't be because she is too old, and maybe because she and her policies are too familiar with Obama,” he told msnbc.
Reagan neutralized the age issue by being “very vigorous, athletic” and looking younger than his 73 years, Rollins said. “In the case of Mrs. Clinton, the only issue will be her health and was she more seriously ill then she let on during her secretary of state tenure,” he said.
“The fact that she won't have a really serious primary challenge allows her to control the tempo of her campaign,” Rollins continued. “Limited stops, and less rigorous days will be the rule and she will not have to do as much campaigning until she is the nominee. If she doesn't stumble or misspeak too often she will be fine. A major stumble and the game may change.”
Reagan pushed the age issue aside for good in a second presidential debate with Mondale with a classic quip. "I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent's youth and inexperience,” he said.
That’s essentially the tack Clinton’s allies have taken in responding to Paul.
“A wise man once told me, ‘Champions don't punch down.’ I believe that man was former boxer Ed Rollins. So forgive me if I decline to engage Sen. Paul,” said Paul Begala, a longtime Clinton strategist who now advises the pro-Clinton super PAC Priorities USA.
Correct the Record, Clinton’s main defenders in the press, noted that while Paul lectures on the rigors of a campaign, the freshman senator has never run for president himself or even reelection. “The excitement and enthusiasm Hillary Clinton will generate on the campaign trail should she run for president will be far more than Rand Paul can handle,” said spokesperson Adrienne Elrod.
After Reagan, Republicans had contend with the age of their presidential nominees in 1996 with Bob Dole (73), and then again in 2008 with John McCain (72).
Hillary Clinton would be younger than any of them at the point they would have been inaugurated, and the same age as Reagan. And the National Journal argued that thanks Clinton’s gender and recent advances in life expectancy, he age is better compared to that of Gerald Ford’s (62 when he was sworn in) than Reagan (69).
In fact, Rand Paul's father, Ron, was 77 -- a full decade older than Clinton is now -- when he ran for president in 2012. Rand Paul didn't seem to have a problem with that.
While running against a youthful Barack Obama, McCain often poked fun as his seniority. “Usually, people watch my performance to see if I need a drool cup, or stumble around, or anything like that,” he said while stumping in Florida in 2007.
McCain’s allies were always on the lookout for perceived slights about his age, like when Obama said McCain was “losing his bearings” during the GOP primary. The campaign pushed back hard, and was sufficiently offended to send a fundraising email to supporters calling the “attack” a “not particularly clever way of raising John McCain's age as an issue.” The campaign also trotted out science showing the cognitive abilities of 70-year-olds was up to snuff.
There concern was understandable. About a third of Americans said McCain's age could interfere with his presidential responsibilities, according to numerous polls from the time. A similar portion expressed that concern about Dole and Reagan as well.
Ironically, it was the Team Clinton raising age as an issue in 1996. One top Bill Clinton White House aide called a Dole speech "tired, old, worn-out.” Another, who would a decade later play a senior role in Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, called Dole’s rhetoric "disconnected and dysfunctional."
“Age can be a factor. I think it was in my race, and it’ll be in hers,” Dole told Politico earlier this year while honoring World War II veterans.
But one big difference between the Republican candidates and Clinton is that the age of Reagan and Dole and McCain better matched the GOP base, which skews older. Clinton’s supporters, meanwhile, include many young people. Almost 60% of people between the ages of 18 and 34 say they would vote for Clinton if the election were held today, while Republicans typically do poorly among young voters.
Young people don’t even perceive Clinton as particularly old. According to a recent Pew survey, an incredible 69% of 18-29 year olds think Clinton is either in her 50s or younger. Just 27% accurately place her age as between 60 and 69, while only 2% say she’s older than 70.
That misconception will be quickly corrected if Republicans have anything to do with it. But as Rollins noted, they also run the risk of backlash if they go after her age too hard. Karl Rove was roundly condemned for attacking Clinton’s health this summer.
But Paul may have another goal in mind in addition contrasting his youthful 51 with Clinton’s 69 -- getting in her head. In 2008, Clinton was easy to rattle and throw off course. Obama campaign manager David Plouffe took deftly took advantage of this trait then, and is warning her of it now.
Paul’s attacks on her age and also those on Monica Lewinsky -- perhaps the two most sensitive areas of Clinton’s life -- may be aimed at provoking a response more damaging than the attack itself.
So far at least, Clinton seems to be experienced enough not to take the bait.