My wife warned me not to write about John McCain’s age. “You’ll get busted by the PC police,” she said. Well, I’m guilty, but with an explanation.
So shouldn’t progressives talk about it? Yes, but the message frame isn’t “geezer.” We progressives don’t discriminate on the basis of age. If McCain is physically and mentally fit to hold our nation’s highest office, we won’t deny it to him on the basis of longevity. But just because we oppose ageism doesn’t mean we should ignore what voters are thinking.
Let’s start with a February 2008 CBS News/New York Times poll which asked, “In general, what is the best age for a president of the United States: in their 30s, in their 40s, in their 50s, in their 60s, or in their 70s?" Here’s the answer:
A 70-something just isn’t the voters’ ideal president. It’s not that voters dislike old people. It’s that they look at such a candidate and think: (1) his health might fail while in office, and (2) he might be out of touch with contemporary issues and attitudes. In fact, DNC-sponsored focus groups found that voters volunteer exactly those concerns about McCain.
Here’s where progressives need to understand framing. All of us carry preconceptions, stereotypes and pictures in our heads which we use to make sense of new information. In fact, people can apply more than one stereotype to just about any person, policy, or situation. A child who runs into a burning home to save the family cat can be framed as “brave” or “reckless.” Voters will think about McCain’s age—the question is what preconception or frame they will use to pass judgment on it.
Republicans are all prepared with a frame to jettison McCain’s age problem—they’ll say that McCain is essentially the same as Ronald Reagan. Progressives may revile Reagan, but persuadable voters revere him. If the GOP succeeds in tying McCain to the Gipper, the Senator’s age will switch from a liability to an asset.
So the Republican frame is McCain equals Reagan. What’s ours? When voters think about McCain’s age, what’s the picture we want appearing in their heads? Remember that voters have two concerns: A 72-year-old could be less than healthy, or out of touch. Republican handlers could address the health issue by displaying an energetic candidate on the campaign trail. (The Reagan campaign showed him lifting weights and chopping wood.) Attacking McCain’s health is not the answer.
Instead, we want McCain’s age to remind voters that he is hopelessly out of touch with Americans’ needs, desires and concerns. And here’s the great advantage to that frame—it’s true! Just point out that McCain doesn’t think health insurance should pay for birth control pills. He opposed establishment of the Martin Luther King holiday. He wants to overturn Roe v. Wade. He voted against SCHIP, the State Children's Health Insurance Program. He was anti-environment in every significant vote last year according to the League of Conservation Voters. And he has no problem keeping our troops in Iraq for the next 100 years. He’s dangerously out of touch.
While voters are in an anti-Washington mood, McCain has been a Washington insider forever (well, his 36 years in Congress seems like forever). While voters are eager to dump Bush administration policies, McCain enthusiastically embraces them, no matter how dismally they’ve failed. While voters desperately want change, McCain would stubbornly give us more of the same. He’s willfully out of touch.
So don’t talk about his age. Explain to undecided voters that McCain is hopelessly, dangerously, willfully out of touch with America. They’ll make the connection themselves.
PC police, can you remove the handcuffs now?