The Age Debate

ELECTION '96

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With Bob Dole having celebrated his birthday less than a month before the Republican National Convention, it comes as no surprise to once again hear the question raised of whether the Republican nominee is too old to be president. But this concern about Mr. Dole's age is unfounded and serves mostly as a smoke screen for the more important issue: Should Bob Dole be president?

Indeed, if chronological age were the determining factor in presidential politics (or even an important one for that matter), one of the most popular presidents of all time - Ronald Reagan - might not have been elected in 1980, nor have been reelected in 1984, at a time when he was the same age as Dole is today.

What the age debate is really all about is politics. Under the guise of concern over his age, Democrats have been consistently rallying opposition to a candidate whose positions are antithetical to their own, and whom they fervently hope to defeat this November.

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Take this year's Medicare debate. With the former Senate majority leader leading his party's efforts to scale back the costly program - a move that would have meant higher premiums for the elderly - is it any wonder that Dole's peers, Americans aged 65 and over, are those most likely to consider him unfit for the job of president?

A recent Time/CNN poll, for example, shows that fewer than half of those in Dole's age group think he's up to snuff. Contrast this with results of the same question posed to those as many as 50 years his junior: 57 percent of Americans under 35 think Dole would make a good president, despite his age.

Does this finding mean that older voters know something that younger ones don't, or simply that younger Americans concerned about their future find Dole's positions on issues like a balanced budget and Medicare more to their liking? Surely, it is the latter.

Of course, this isn't to suggest that all young people support Dole. In fact, younger Americans, like those of older ages, still favor President Clinton decisively in the polls. But it does indicate that how one views Dole's age is as much - if not more - a function of one's feelings about his candidacy and stance on the issues as it is about anything as mundane (and irrelevant) as his chronological age.

While age might not be so unimportant if Dole were in poor health, the fact of the matter is that the former senator is in tip-top shape and would in all likelihood be able to serve out not just one but two full terms as president.

To the extent age is at all relevant, however, it should be in relation to life experience, not physical health. And on that score, Dole may very well have something tangible to offer. For not only did the Russell, Kan., native serve in this country's greatest war (losing the use of his right arm in the process), a sacrifice for which many far younger have deep respect, but he knows what it's like to grow up during a period of our nation's history in which, like today, many Americans live their lives amidst great economic insecurity.

If Mr. Clinton and the Democrats want to criticize their Republican opponent on the issues, that's both fair and to be expected. But they should leave the age issue alone. It's of little significance to the race and only distracts from the more important choice between the two visions of leadership being offered by the men who seek to lead our nation.

*Alex Abrams, political analyst for MTV News, is co-author of "Late Bloomers: Coming of Age in Today's America, the Right Place at the Wrong Time."

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