Dumb Move

The Ageist Attack on Hillary

Attacking Hillary for being old will probably backfire, says Michael Tomasky.

So now the Republicans, having tried sexism against Hillary Clinton for two decades, say they’re ditching that and going for ageism. Of course whether the party of Todd Akin and involuntary vaginal probes really can ditch sexism remains doubtful, so let’s amend the above to say simply that they’re adding ageism to the list of indictments. They actually have a bit of a point. If Clinton seeks the presidency in 2016, she’ll be old enough for her age to be an issue—Ronald Reagan turned 70 just three weeks into his presidency, and Clinton would do so nine months into her first year as president. Where the planned attack melts into comedy, though, is in the idea that Republicans can springboard from the simple actuarial question of her age to selling young voters on the idea that it is they, not the Democrats, who are with it. Here, they’ll make the same pathetic mistake they always make of assuming that X voting bloc is stupid enough to fall for symbolism.

The story appeared in yesterday’s Times, if you missed it, with several GOP operatives telling Jonathan Martin the message would be that it’s time for Clinton’s generation to step off the stage. The comparative youth of many of the GOP’s leading candidates—Marco Rubio is 42, Paul Ryan is 43, Rand Paul is 50—renders the theme all the more tempting. Karl Rove told Martin: “The idea that we’re at the end of her generation and that it’s time for another to step forward is certainly going to be compelling.”

The Rove quote suggests a war that will be waged on two fronts. First, her age and physical condition; second, the question of which candidate can better “relate” to young voters. On the first point, there will be questions Clinton will need to answer. That fainting spell and concussion last year saw to that. And she probably can’t quip the issue away. Reagan famously said in a debate with Walter Mondale, when the issue of his age came up, that he wouldn’t hold Mondale’s relative “youth and inexperience” against him. Ho ho ho, end of issue.

It won’t work that way for Clinton for two reasons. First, in 1984, a handful of middle-aged male pundits could decide that that one line put the issue to rest. Our current reality is rather different. The right-wing press will traffic in all kinds of sleazy rumors the instant she catches cold. And second, she is something Reagan was not. A woman. She’ll face more questions than he did, and far more criticism. Rush Limbaugh asked his listeners if Americans want to “watch a woman get older before their eyes on a daily basis.” If he has the reach we’re told he has, he creates 10 new Clinton voters every time he opens his fat mouth.

On the question of relating to young people, well, first, don’t fake it. Don’t go around quoting Drake lyrics in speeches. She has a pretty darn good youth, or by now quasi-youth, ambassador in Chelsea. Use her. But just be who she is. Lest we forget, there are millions of young, female Americans who admire her tremendously. They grew up with her as the first first lady they ever knew. A 23-year-old woman, born in 1990, came of age watching Hillary Clinton negotiate that minefield of lunacy laid down before her by the oblivious men of the opposing party, suffering her first slights from pimply and adenoidal boys just as they were watching Clinton get the same treatment from those wrinkly and urethritic men. A certain sense of comradeship and loyalty has been hard-wired since these women were young girls.

On this topic, by the way: just as the Republicans cemented that loyalty by overdoing their attacks on her in the earlier White House years, so they will again, and they’ll make her a figure of sympathy to Middle America just as they did before. Talk about hard-wired: they so seethe with hatred for her, and are so incapable of understanding that the vast majority of America not only doesn’t share their hatred but indeed has named her our country’s most admired woman in 17 of the last 20 years, that they’ll say and do things that may well convert young people into her most ardent defenders. After a few Republican “jokes” about Clinton’s appearance, 70 will never have seemed so appealing.

But the main way for her to beat them on whether she can relate to young people is simply through policy. Whomever she’s running against, she’ll be the candidate who supports same-sex marriage. She’ll be the one who backed a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants (granted, some Republicans will be able to say this too). She’ll be the one who backs lower student-loan rates. She’ll be the candidate who supports Obamacare, which permits young people to stay on their parents’ insurance until age 26. She’ll be the candidate who actually did something for young people and especially young women across the world as secretary of state. She’ll be the one who supports equality in all its forms instead of opposing it in all its forms, she’ll be the candidate for whom virtually every important young-people icon will be stumping, and she’ll be the candidate of the party that is not the comfortable home to America’s bigots and racists.

Republicans make the same mistake all the time with groups they don’t normally talk to or know much about, whether it’s African-Americans or Latinos or young people. They think they’ll change loyalties on the basis of symbolism. But people turn out not to be that stupid. They actually pay some attention to substance, and the GOP stands against what young people support in almost every particular.

The one partial exception is Rand Paul and his opposition to the surveillance state. That does give him some crossover potential with young voters, no doubt—he will be to Clinton’s left on that. But if Paul is the nominee, the Clinton campaign will ensure that young voters become aware that he compared same-sex marriage to tying the knot with animals, and that he thinks the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was unfair to private-business owners. I’d guess that many of those who admire his surveillance position will start thinking twice.

Direct attacks on Clinton’s age will, if history is a guide, go overboard and backfire; and as for rebranding the GOP as the forward-looking party of young people, well, that has to start with changing policy positions that the party has no ability to change. Other than that, great idea.