Saturday, March 16, 2019

Joe Biden and the one-term pledge idea

David Gergen, writing at CNN, has 3 suggestions for former Vice President Joe Biden if he decides to run for president. The first suggestion:

[I]f and when he declares, Biden might break precedent by promising up front that he will serve for only a single term. . . . Unlike other politicians who always seem grasping for power, Biden would have a credible argument that he is truly putting country first. . . .

[C]ommitting to one term would also diminish the importance of his age issue. With a single term, he would step down at 81. People might accept that. But trying to go on till 85? That seems beyond the pale.
I agree with Gergen: in a presidential race, age matters.

But then, why does this article understate Joe Biden's age?

Biden was born on November 20, 1942 (unless Wikipedia and the rest of the internet are mistaken).

2024 - 1942 = 82.

So if President Biden serves just one term, he'll turn 82 (not 81, as Gergen says) shortly after Election Day 2024, before he steps down in January 2025. If he serves a full two terms, he'll be 86 (not 85) by the end of his presidency.

If CNN wants to be in a good position to defend itself against the president's wrongful attacks on the network as "fake news," CNN should try to give us confidence that its articles are thoroughly fact-checked. When we see misstatements about basic info like a former vice president's age on CNN, we lose a bit of that confidence.

Anyway, I'm always skeptical of the idea that a presidential candidate might pledge to serve only 4 years if elected. That suggestion gets made whenever there's a septuagenarian candidate, but we never ended up hearing those pledges from Bob Dole, John McCain, Bernie Sanders, etc. (The candidate would ideally make the pledge before the primaries start being held, so voters can factor it into their decision.) It was also suggested about Hillary Clinton when she ran in her late 60s. And while there's been speculation about whether Donald Trump (the oldest president ever when first inaugurated) will run for reelection, he hasn't taken a one-term pledge.

This 2015 Washington Post article tells the history of one-term pledges. Three presidents have made them, but they were all in the 19th century. (Two kept the pledge; the other was William Henry Harrison, who died a month into his first term.) But the idea of a self-imposed term limit started feeling less relevant once the two-term limit was added to the Constitution in 1951.

There are two other problems with the pledge. One is it could backfire by drawing attention to the candidate's age and raising questions about the candidate's health. It would be seen as an admission: "I'm too old to serve for 8 years." That will get voters wondering if the candidate is too old to serve for even 4 years.

The other problem, as the WaPo article says:
If someone made the pledge and then got elected, would they hold to it? A number of congressional candidates during and since the 1994 wave election made term-limit pledges -- and a number of them have broken them. Once president, it seems hard to think a politician would simply walk away.
The article includes a tweet saying a one-term pledge "is like when that opera lover in your life insists you go but agrees you can leave at intermission."

(Photo of Biden in 2017 by Jay Godwin, via Wikimedia Commons.)