The probable Democratic House leadership team, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) and her lieutenants Steny H. Hoyer (Md.) and James E. Clyburn (S.C.), will be 80, 81 and 80, respectively. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) will be 78, though if Democrats get lucky in two Georgia Senate runoffs, New York’s Charles E. Schumer (turning 70 on Nov. 23) may replace him.
Schumer will be one of 23 Senate septuagenarians — six Republicans and 17 Democrats. Republicans Richard C. Shelby (Ala.), James M. Inhofe (Okla.) and Charles E. Grassley (Iowa), along with Democrat Dianne Feinstein (Calif.) are over 85.
A pessimist could view this Washington gerontocracy as yet another symptom of national decline, uncomfortably reminiscent of the ailing Soviet general secretaries who died off seriatim in the Cold War’s final years. The contrast between the power of these veterans and the prominence of youthful firebrands on the left (Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York) and right (Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri) is stark.
But it is both more optimistic and — just possibly — more realistic to suppose a cohort of politicians born in the early 1940s is exactly what the United States needs at this perilous moment.
As Biden has emphasized since Nov. 3 — in speeches rich with old-fashioned words such as “patience” and “calm” — the task ahead is to restore a modicum of unity, after four years in which President Trump has done so much to inflame division.
And, unlike AOC, Hawley or, for that matter, the median American, who is 38 years old, Biden and his fellow senior citizens experienced, and remember, political life before the escalating partisan warfare that began with the Newt Gingrich-led GOP takeover of the House in 1994.
Their formative years in politics were the tumultuous 1960s and 1970s, but they spent that period in the halls of a broadly moderate Congress, or in conventional electoral politics — not the streets.
Active in civil rights and local Charleston elections in the late 1960s, Clyburn, who is Black, became a protege of South Carolina’s moderate post-segregation Democratic governor, John C. West — before ultimately gaining his seat in the House in 1992.
And McConnell? Even his first political jobs were with liberal Republican Kentucky senators, Marlow Cook and John Sherman Cooper, both of whom supported civil rights (though Cook later blasted McConnell for shifting right as a senator).
Much has changed since then. Today’s negative partisanship creates powerful incentives to escalate, rather than reduce, conflict, as McConnell has done in his handling of Supreme Court nominations over the past half-decade. Pelosi and Schumer, too, have evolved into fierce partisans.
Nevertheless, Biden and the other oldsters may opt for compromise and cooperation, precisely because they are, well, old.
The current situation gives them more political freedom of action than ever before in their long lives — should they choose to see it that way. They have all achieved their respective personal ambitions; the challenge is not winning reelection in two, four or six years, but leaving a legacy — for those grandchildren they’re always going on about.
The ill-fated Compromise of 1850 provides a dubious template for contemporary legislation, not only because it ultimately failed, but also because it attempted to stabilize the Union while perpetuating slavery.
Its animating spirit, however — avoiding mutual destruction through mutual concessions — remains valid and relevant.
The Compromise was the last great project of Kentucky Sen. Henry Clay, 73 — ancient in that era. It had the crucial support of 68-year-old Sen. Daniel Webster, of Massachusetts, who, like Clay, died within two years of its passage. Perhaps also relevant today, a 37-year-old presidential aspirant, Sen. Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois, devised the legislative strategy that enabled Clay’s proposals to pass.
McConnell’s choice today is whether to proceed in the spirit of Clay, whose “marvelous combination of compromise and principle” he has praised — or to play a spoiling, obstructionist role, which is how 68-year-old Sen. John C. Calhoun of South Carolina spent the last days of his life in 1850.
McConnell may find a willing partner in his former Senate colleague Biden, with whom he often negotiated when the latter was Barack Obama’s vice president.
At a memorable early moment in the Democratic primary, Biden defended his Senate record of dealing with Southern segregationists when then-rival Sen. Kamala D. Harris (Calif.) attacked him for it. Clyburn vigorously defended Biden’s position; when the spat was over, Harris was a distant also-ran and Biden the nominee.
Biden buried his differences with Harris to make her his running mate, and now, of course, he has won the White House.