The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Cognitive testing for politicians? It’s easier just to vote them out.

President Biden at the White House on Nov. 6. (Oliver Contreras/For The Washington Post)

Nikki Haley’s recent suggestion that politicians of a certain age should submit to cognitive testing seemed like an early shot across the bow of Election 2024.

Could she possibly have been talking about both the current and previous presidents, one of whom could be her initial opponent should she decide to run for the White House herself? Haley, currently the relatively youthful age of 49, would be of roughly average age among American presidents if elected in 2024, though in the past two cycles we have elected men who have been on the AARP mailing list for a while.

President Biden, whose age is sometimes painfully apparent, was 77 when elected and is now 78. Donald Trump was a mere lad of 70 when elected and was 74 when he faced Biden in 2020. Even Ronald Reagan, whom we considered elderly toward the end of his second term, was a mere 69 when first elected in 1980 — and was younger than Biden is now when he left office in January 1989 at age 77.

So, what of Haley’s idea? Should presidents, vice presidents and other elected leaders be forced to take cognitive tests? What about Supreme Court justices? Beginning at what age — 60, 65, 70? How often? Annually or every two years? Who should preside over such examinations, and how should they be reported to the public?

If we have trouble attracting good people to run for public office now, just wait until we ask politicians to submit to acuity testing. That won’t help with candidate recruitment!

Then again, shouldn’t a president be able to draw a clock with the arms pointing to a specific time? This is the level of functioning we’re talking about.

Haley’s comment came in response to a question during an interview with the Christian Broadcasting Network about Biden’s mental acuity. She replied that rather than talking about any one person, “we seriously need to have a conversation” about age and cognition given the advanced years of so many of our political leaders. She might have a point: House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) is 81; Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is 79. And Dianne Feinstein (D), the longest-serving senator from California, is 88; so is Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska), the longest-serving member of the U.S. House. In politics, extreme maturity seems to be a good career move.

Age is less of a problem at the Supreme Court, where justices typically retire rather than risk being noted for their cognitive decline. When the formidable Ruth Bader Ginsburg lost her battle with cancer at 87, she was still seated with nary a cognitive function out of place. Everyone ages differently.

Obviously, people didn’t live so long when the Founding Fathers wrote the rules.

But questioning a person’s ability to think clearly after that person has been selected by the people to represent them could create problems we cannot solve. Cognition cuts to the core of each of us, affecting our sense of self- and societal worth. Mature public servants sitting down for cognitive analysis are also putting their professional lives on the line. And to whom might we wish to grant such privileged information?

Cognitive tests, which are not the same as IQ tests, test the core skills the brain uses to think, read, learn, recall and reason. If Biden sometimes garbles his words, does this mean his memory is gone, or just that he’s tired and could use a nap? Being older may require a different pace, but that pace itself is not necessarily disqualifying. The idea that we’re all supposed to be firing on all cylinders 24/7 — a notion codified by a younger generation that seems to conflate speed with brilliance — is a bratty construct signifying nothing. Or, possibly, everyone’s on Adderall.

Cognitive tests, meanwhile, will likely tell us less than many imagine they will. Remember, Trump aced his test, as he couldn’t stop bragging. Apparently, he thought that identifying wild animals, one of the challenges on a quiz he took, confirmed his memorable assertion that he was a “stable genius.” What it really meant was that he could also identify a camel, draw that clock I mentioned before, and recite five words — person, woman, man, camera, TV — a whole 20 minutes after he first heard them.

Of course, many concerns about Trump’s noggin weren’t cognitive. They were psychological. Imagine trying to weed out toxic narcissists through psychological testing; we can’t even get people to get vaccinated against a deadly disease. Meanwhile, we note that elections roll around with such sufficient regularity that the cognitively challenged can be retired when constituents see fit.

Given, however, that this doesn’t happen nearly enough, cognitive testing for voters might prove more useful in the long run. Now that’s a platform I could get behind.