Barack Obama’s re-election means that, for the next four years, the face of the Democratic Party will be its vigorous 51-year-old president.
Beyond Obama, however, the party has an increasingly geriatric leadership that is blocking the emergence of younger leaders. That’s a potential disadvantage at a time when Mitt Romney’s defeat, along with the ascendancy of younger leaders, is allowing the Republicans to move on from their aging Baby Boom generation leaders.
The problem facing the Democrats is most evident in its senior House leadership. But it’s also apparent in the Senate and in the potential pecking order of presidential prospects who hope to succeed Obama four years hence.
The issue received a brief, somewhat acrimonious airing when former Speaker Nancy Pelosi, 72, announced she would remain the top House Democratic leader, despite the party’s failure to regain the majority it held from 2007 to 2011. Pelosi bristled when NBC’s Luke Russert, citing the private views of some Democrats, asked whether “your decision to stay on prohibits the party from having a younger leadership and hurts the party in the long run.”
Amid boos from female House Democrats on hand, Pelosi responded that “you always ask that question, except to Mitch McConnell,” referring to the Republican Senate leader, who is 70. She went on to explain how, like other women, she only began her political career after raising her family, before responding “no” to Russert’s initial question.
Since becoming the top House Democrat, Pelosi has been a strong leader, perhaps the party’s strongest since the legendary Speaker Tip O’Neill, and a relentless fundraiser. But as a liberal Democrat representing a San Francisco district (though she grew up in Baltimore), Pelosi has been the favorite target of House Republicans. Her negative image may have contributed to the party’s decisive 2010 defeat, a problem many Democrats would like to avoid two years hence. A poll for the liberal Daily Kos in September showed her job disapproval remains about 20 points higher than her approval.
Ironically, if she stepped down, her likely successor would be Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, himself a year older at 73. And the No. 3 House Democrat is Rep. James Clyburn of South Carolina, 72. So the problem is less Pelosi’s age than the fact the trio’s presence blocks the ascension of such well-regarded younger Democrats as Reps. Xavier Becerra of California, 54, the new caucus chair; Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida, 46, the current Democratic National Committee chairman; and Chris van Hollen of Maryland, 53, ranking Democrat on the House Budget Committee.
In contrast, the House GOP leadership headed by Speaker John Boehner of Ohio, 63, includes such relative youngsters as Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia, 49, Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy of California, 47, and Budget Chairman Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, 42.
The pattern is similar, though less dramatic, in the Senate. Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada is about to turn 73, and his deputy, Sen. Richard Durbin of Illinois, turns 68 this week. Like Pelosi, Reid is more effective as an inside leader than as a public voice. That role is generally filled by Durbin and the No. 3 Democrat, Sen. Charles Schumer of New York, 62 today. Like Reid, McConnell is better at inside politics, meaning his new deputy, Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, 60, will be a major GOP Senate spokesman.
Nationally, the Democrats’ problem may be even more dramatic than in Congress. With Obama barred from running again, the two top Democratic candidates to succeed him are Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, 65, and Vice President Joe Biden, 70. Waiting in the wings are such ambitious younger Democrats as Govs. Andrew Cuomo of New York, 54, Michael O’Malley of Maryland, 49, and Brian Schweitzer of Montana, 57; Sens. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, 52, and Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, 45; and Mayor Cory Booker of Newark, N.J., 43.
In contrast, with Romney’s defeat, younger candidates will dominate the 2016 Republican field, including Ryan; Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, 41; Gov. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, 41; Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey, 50; and former Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida, 59.
As the national GOP situation illustrates, defeat is often the best catalyst for a party leadership transition.
Carl Leubsdorf is the former Washington bureau chief of The Dallas Morning News. Distributed by MCT.
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