McCain Age ‘Code’ Talk

McCain Too Old? Some supporters of John McCain accuse the Obama campaign of using “code words” to imply that McCain is old.

“It is code; there is no question it is,” Ed Rollins, a Republican strategist who helped lead President Ronald Reagan’s 1984 reelection campaign, said when age surfaced as an issue. “They are trying to raise doubts.”

MSNBC host Joe Scarborough repeatedly argued on his show last week that the Obama campaign was portraying McCain as a “doddering, old, confused fool. He needs to go to Miami Beach and play checkers.”

To Democrats, however, Republicans are imagining slights and smears where there are none as part of an attempt to silence any discussion of McCain’s vigor. “They are definitely trying to just put a lid on the kind of language we use,” said Democratic consultant Jonathan Prince.

Obama aides deny any strategy to highlight age, and Obama, 46, himself told reporters last month that age should not be a factor. Indeed, he used to compliment McCain’s “half-century of service” to the country as a Vietnam War veteran and a member of Congress, but after McCain campaign manager Rick Davis argued that it was a sly way to inject age into the debate, Obama dropped the reference in February.

Aside from that instance, the article makes no reference to what “code words” Team Obama is using, making it difficult to judge the merits of the charge.

But the whole thing is silly. Nobody, least which John McCain, denies that McCain is old. At 72, he’d be the oldest first-term president in history. And, thanks to five and a half years being tortured by the Viet Cong, it wouldn’t be a young 72. They say it’s not the age, it’s the miles. Well, McCain has a lot of miles of him. Hard miles.

Is McCain’s age, health, and vitality a legitimate issue? Or course it is.

A Gallup poll a little more than a year ago showed that Americans were much more likely to vote for a black man than a Mormon and much more likely to vote for a Mormon than a 72-year-old. Indeed, the only groups that polled worse were homosexuals — who were well within the margin of error — and atheists.

Beyond that, concerns about McCain being “too old” are much less about prejudice than honest fear that he won’t be up to the strains of the job. Rather than whining about how unfair it all is, it’s up to Team McCain to demonstrate that there’s no reason to worry.

A 72-year-old Ronald Reagan managed to do it with a single, disarming quip in 1984: “I want you to know that also 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.” I doubt McCain’s going to have it that easy. But it’s up to him to find a way.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. sam says:

    Aside from that instance, the article makes no reference to what “code words” Team Obama is using, making it difficult to judge the merits of the charge.

    Preemptive strike, if you ask me.

  2. JOshu says:

    Two points:
    1.McCain was never that smart(graduated bottom 1% of his naval academy)
    2.The brain rapidly declines with old age. This is established fact.

    We need a president that can think. A president that has lost the marbles, with his finger on the RED BUTTON?

    I don’t think so. Not with his temper.

  3. Anon says:

    Besides the question of whether or not Obama is attacking McCain based on age, there is the point that it’s a misnomer to call them code words. Code words are used when a politician wishes to speak to a group of voters without arousing the ire of other groups of voters. For example, maybe Obama wants to signal to unions that it will repeal NAFTA without arousing free-traders.

  4. James Joyner says:

    1.McCain was never that smart(graduated bottom 1% of his naval academy)

    Did you know that fifty percent of all doctors finish in the bottom half of their class at med school? It’s true!

    It’s the friggin’ Naval Academy. A really hard school. And my guess is McCain was preoccupied with things other than the books.

    2.The brain rapidly declines with old age. This is established fact.

    No, it isn’t.

  5. anjin-san says:

    And my guess is McCain was preoccupied with things other than the books.

    Ummmm…. its school. Books are important.

  6. Steve says:

    A 72-year-old Ronald Reagan managed to do it with a single, disarming quip in 1984: “I want you to know that also 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.”

    Didn’t Reagan also squelch the age question by a statement in a speech that went something like “…at least I didn’t have to ask my mother if I could run for President”?

    McCain needs to stop whining, let those age statements roll off his back and concentrate on the issues.

    2.The brain rapidly declines with old age. This is established fact.

    It’s also a known fact that chronological age isn’t always the main factor. My wife teaches older adults to write their life stories. She tells me often of the mental sharpness of her students. Also, there are many 40 somethings that show signs of mental decline. I just hope one of them doesn’t get elected President.

  7. Spoker says:

    Of course Obama is going to use age. He will also use Bush III, health, race, swift-boating, and any other thing he and his henchmen can think up.

    Conversely they will most certainly not use open debate, concrete proposals, experience, or real implementable solutions to problems. Doing that would require putting himself and his ideas openly in front of the American people and if he really did that he would not get elected.

  8. Hal says:

    James:

    Did you know that fifty percent of all doctors finish in the bottom half of their class at med school? It’s true!

    Yes, but how many finish in the bottom 1%? The assertion wasn’t that McCain was in the bottom half, it was that he finished in the bottom 1%.

    And my guess is McCain was preoccupied with things other than the books.

    Fine. That still doesn’t blunt the criticism that McCain has never been all that smart. Indeed, you’re just admitting that he had other things to do than be smart.

    In general, Obama doesn’t need “code words” to imply that McCain is old. Rather, McCain actually is old – a fact that everyone plainly sees and everyone seems universally aware of.

    The question is whether he’s too old, and that’s something for voters to decide. It’s a perfectly valid point to be bringing up in the debate over who will be president.

  9. Mark Jaquith says:

    Race is ignorable. Gender and age are material differences and should be open for debate.

  10. Michael says:

    Yes, but how many finish in the bottom 1%? The assertion wasn’t that McCain was in the bottom half, it was that he finished in the bottom 1%.

    Yes, but the implication was that being in the bottom 1% meant that McCain wasn’t smart. All you really know is that McCain got lower grades than most of his graduating class. Unless Obama was in that class, you have no real way to measure, with only this data, which of the two is smarter.

  11. Hal says:

    Unless Obama was in that class, you have no real way to measure, with only this data, which of the two is smarter.

    Hey, I was just pointing out the rather bizarre logic James was trying to use. I think McCain is dumb based on the things he’s said, the things he’s done and what he claims he wants to do, in addition to the generic pandering, flip flops and bizarro rationalizing that he shares with all politicians. He has never struck me as a particularly thoughtful man, nor has he shown what I would consider to be any evidence of deep thought, careful analysis or even basic strategic contemplation.

    True, he may be hiding it, lulling democrats into a false sense of security, but so far there simply no evidence of anything that would characterize him as even above average in intelligence.

    Brave? Sure. But you don’t have to be smart to be courageous.

  12. anjin-san says:

    you have no real way to measure, with only this data, which of the two is smarter

    Sure there is:

    McCain – bottom 1%

    Obama – Editor Harvard Law Review

    See how easy…

  13. DL says:

    The answer McCain needs to memorize for when it comes up in the debate that is certain to endure him with the voters is that at his age at least he wont be distracted by sex in the Whitehouse.

  14. DL says:

    On that intellegence debate, frankly I’d look for a man who has character and the wisdom to seek proper advice any day.

    The history books are loaded with stories of bright men who have done little more than destroy things.

    Take a look in our universities today – which of the brilliant minds would you want as leader?

  15. Tee Tonic says:

    Frankly I am at a loss why the McCain team are so flustered by the mention of his age. They routinely argue that Obama is young, immature and naive for the office (as though no one his age ever got to be President). The fact is that Mr. McCain is old (this is not negative, but fact), and the signs are everywhere you look – he is often misspeaking or forgetting facts, and confusing stuff. That does not make him evil. Voters have a right to weigh his age in deciding whether to offer him the job or not, just as they should weigh Obama’s age and other factors. In the end, McCain will win or lose depending on how he answers this and other questions NOT HOW HE WHINES about it. There are many age defying solutions out there, and he is welcome to try any of them. He could begin by dyeing his hair pitch black and some shots of botox and HGH. He could easily gain 20+ years with a combo option and even best Obama in looks. Now my friends, that would be REAL CHANGE WE HAVE TO BELIEVE IN. He will be instantly transformed and transfixed from McCain to “McCool”. Just imagine John McCain sporting a pitch black wavy hair, white teeth, and no wrinkles. The youth of america will flock to him in a heart beat, and his campaign events will fill up with young women yelling and fainting. His name will change from John to Johnny !!! That my fellow americans will be CHANGE we cannot deny !!!

  16. Michael says:

    McCain – bottom 1%

    Obama – Editor Harvard Law Review

    See how easy…

    By such a simple analysis you must also conclude that having a 4.0 GPA in performance art makes you smarter than someone with a 3.0 GPA in theoretical physics. Surely we can all agree on how inaccurate that would be.

    If you want to compare intelligences of the candidates, you need to use a common system of measurement.