Why Republicans should shut up about Hillary Clinton's age

The Week
By 2016, Hillary Clinton will be 69 years old.
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By 2016, Hillary Clinton will be 69 years old.

Even though the GOP nominee's relative youth would be a huge advantage

In a fascinating New York Times article this weekend, Jonathan Martin wrote: "A Republican approach that calls attention to Mrs. Clinton's age is not without peril, and Democrats predict that it could backfire."

This is true, but mostly irrelevant, inasmuch as calling attention to it is unnecessary. Martin quotes Karl Rove, who — hearkening back to JFK's 1960 campaign — notes that such messages can be handled subtly: "It was a matter of style, emphasis, tone, and focus. It wasn’t so much an explicit contrast. The most powerful argument in politics are where the voters themselves fill in the conclusion itself."

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If the GOP nominates Marco Rubio or Paul Ryan or Rand Paul — or any number of youngish conservative rising stars — the age contrast with Hillary Clinton (should she run and win the nomination) would be obvious. There would be no need to ever mention age. When voters see an ad with Rubio walking on the beach with his wife and young children, well, that would be Kennedy-esque.

But here's where I think Martin's warning holds water. Even assuming everyone at the RNC gets the memo that it would be best to avoid overtly referencing the age issue, the GOP clearly cannot impose message discipline on others. As JFK quipped, "There is always some son-of-a-bitch who doesn't get the word."

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For example, Martin closes his article by referencing Rush Limbaugh's public pondering over whether Americans will want to "watch a woman get older before their eyes on a daily basis?" This is the kind of thing that is best left unsaid. Considering the Democrats' ability to pretend Limbaugh's sometimes-off-the-cuff commentary represents the GOP's thinking (see Sandra Fluke), statements like that could have major consequences, perhaps even turning Hillary into a victim of the bogus "war on women."

One of Obama's worst moments in the 2008 campaign came when he said she was "likable enough," and her greatest triumph came after she shed a few tears in New Hampshire. Republicans obviously should worry about making a similar mistake.

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Martin also noted that "it is striking that the Democrats — which in the Obama era has been the party of the rising America, the young, the immigrant, the urban — could run an older candidate from a long political dynasty while the party of older, conservative America could nominate a youthful standard-bearer." The dynasty part deserves some more attention.

First, this is a good argument for not nominating Jeb Bush. How many Clintons or Bushes can we take? But it's also important to dig a little deeper into the age issue. The cult of youth, of course, is silly. Age can bring wisdom, and youth often equals ignorance. But the reason voters might prefer a younger candidate probably has little to do with age itself. In the case of Kennedy, voters wanted to "pass the torch" to someone born in the 20th century.

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How might this apply today? One of the benefits of time passing is that, through attrition, we transcend some of the same old battles we've been fighting for years. Hillary — a child of the '60s — brings a lot of generational baggage. Symbolically, she represents all the culture war struggles going back to the Civil Rights movement, Watergate, Vietnam — you name it. Compare that with Rubio, who — as Martin notes — "drops the names of rappers like Pitbull and Jay-Z," and it's understandable why voters might want to symbolically pass the torch forward.

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