Four decades. That’s how large the age gap was between the oldest candidate, 77-year-old Bernie Sanders, and the youngest, 37-year-old Pete Buttigieg, on the stage for the second Democratic debate Thursday night.
The disparity was apparent in the exchanges between the younger presidential hopefuls, like Buttigieg and 38-year-old California Rep. Eric Swalwell, who hoped to gain some ground on their more sage competitors, like 76-year-old former Vice President Joe Biden, who’s been crushing it in the polls. During an election cycle when the Democratic Party is being dragged kicking and screaming further to the left — sometimes by Sanders — younger candidates capitalized by associating tried-and-true centrist ideas with old age.
Biden seemed to take the brunt of the attacks. With more years in the Senate than three of his debate opponents have had on this Earth, his opponents had a lot of political decisions to work with.
Swalwell was the most aggressive. He used Biden’s own words, from his speech at the 1987 Democratic Convention, against him.
“I was 6 years old when a presidential candidate came to the California Democratic convention and said it’s time to pass the torch to a new generation of Americans,” Swalwell said. “Joe Biden was right when he said it was time to pass the torch to a new generation of Americans 32 years ago, he’s still right today.”
“I’m still holding on to that torch,” Biden responded.
Biden’s age came up once more during what was perhaps the most poignant moment of the night. Sen. Kamala Harris, 54, scorched the former the vice president for taking a stance against busing in his early years as a senator. And she made it personal.
“You know, there was a little girl in California, who was a part of the second class to integrate her public schools,” she said, looking directly at Biden. “And she was bused to schools every day. And that little girl was me. So I will tell you that on this subject, it cannot be an intellectual debate among Democrats.”
Biden’s questionable record on race already played out among the candidates earlier this month, when the vice president reminisced about having working relationships with segregationists in the '70s. Sen. Cory Booker, in particular, said he was disappointed that someone as well-respected as Biden didn’t “issue an apology immediately” following the backlash from his own party.
Buttigieg, who identified himself as “the youngest guy on the stage,” has let it be known that he’s focused on “generational change” in the past; in fact, his entire campaign seems to be centered around that principle.
He once again flexed his youth during last night’s debate and pointed out that his understanding of millennial problems like health care, income equality, and the existential threat of climate change are what make him uniquely qualified to make the kind of change that Americans want to see.
“I’m running because the decisions we make in the next three or four years are going to decide how the next 30 or 40 go,” he said. “And when I get to the current age of the current president in the year 2055, I want to be able to look back on these years and say my generation delivered.”
That’s not to say the older crowd didn’t have their objections to the blatant swipes at their age.
Marianne Williamson said she forgave Swalwell for his “young and immature” comments, a bit of a burn in and of itself. She also pointed out that age has little to do with policy.
“That somebody has a younger body doesn’t mean you don’t have old ideas,” Williamson said, a swipe at younger, more centrist candidates, like former Rep. John Delaney and Sen. Amy Klobuchar.
Sanders jumped in to defend the boomers on stage as well.
“As a part of Joe’s generation let me respond, the issue is not generational,” he said, before circling back to his tried and true key platforms. “The issue is who has the guts to take on Wall Street, to take on the fossil fuel industry, to take on the big money interests who have unbelievable influence of the economic and political influence of this country.”
And the Vermont Senator stayed on the defensive after the debate.
"I think that's kind of ageism, to tell you the truth," Sanders said to reporters according to USA Today. "Judge people on the totality of who they are: what their ideas are, what their experience is, what their record is."
Cover image: Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders attend the 2020 Democratic Party presidential debates held at The Adrienne Arsht Center on June 27, 2019 in Miami Florida. Credit: mpi04/MediaPunch ***NO NY NEWSPAPERS*** /IPX