“In American politics, there's a sense you want to be new. You don't want to be too familiar. You want to be something fresh. You don't want to be something old and stale.” Karl Rove discussing Hillary Clinton on Fox News, May 26, 2014.
Mitt Romney's reemergence as a possible top-tier Republican contender for the 2016 White House race has created an awkward situation for some Republicans and conservative commentators who have been dwelling on Hillary Clinton's age in recent months. The development also poses a potentially thorny issue for journalists in terms of how they treat male and female politicians.
To date, Republicans have been eager to highlight Clinton's age. “Republican strategists and presidential hopefuls, in ways subtle and overt, are eager to focus a spotlight on Mrs. Clinton's age,” the New York Times reported in 2013. Just this week, conservative Washington Post contributor Ed Rogers mocked Clinton for being stuck in a cultural “time warp,” circa the “tie-dye” 1960s.
So why the newfound awkwardness for spotlighting Clinton's age? Because Mitt Romney's the same age as Hillary Clinton. They're both 67 years old. (Actually, Romney's older than Clinton by seven months.)
The fact that early polling suggests the possible Republican front runner is the same age as Clinton raises interesting questions for the political press, which has carved out plenty of time and space in recent years to analyze the question of Clinton's age and to repeat Republican allegations that she might be too old for the job of president. Going forward, will the same press corps devote a similar amount of time and space asking the same questions about Romney? And if not, why not? (A recent Boston Globe article actually positioned Romney's age as a plus for the Republican: “Supporters have also noted that Romney would be 69 years old in 2016 -- the same age as Reagan when he was sworn into his first term.” )
Note that Clinton famously faced sexist commentary about her age during the 2008 campaign. The late Slate writer Christopher Hitchens ridiculed her as an “aging and resentful female,” while Rush Limbaugh's website once asked, “Do the American people want to observe the aging of this woman in office?”
Currently, we know where Republicans stand, albeit before they realized 67-year-old Romney might run again. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell compared Clinton to a cast member from "The Golden Girls," Rick Santorum called her "old," Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker claimed that Clinton “embodies that old, tired top-down approach from the government,” while former Fox host Mike Huckabee wondered if the former secretary of state who traveled nearly one million miles while in office would have the stamina for a national campaign: “She's going to be at an age where it's going to be a challenge for her.”
And then there's Fox contributor Erick Erickson. Hillary Clinton is “going to be old” in 2016, he said. “I don't know how far back they can pull her face.”
Amidst the flurry of coverage that erupted since Romney signaled last week that he's seriously considering running again, the topic of his age certainly has not been a hot one. We'll have to see if it becomes an area of media interest in the coming weeks and months if Romney decides to enter the race.
Will it be the subject of a National Journal column, like this one last year by Charlie Cook: “Is Hillary Clinton Too Old to Run?” In it, Cook wondered if Clinton was “physically up to the rigors of running and serving in office.” (Cook did follow that up with a column about Vice President Joe Biden's age and his political future.)
The Clinton commentary drew a flag from syndicated columnist Froma Harrop. “Both men and women face age discrimination, but it's no secret that for women, ageism mixes easily with sexism. And obsessing over a woman's year of birth is often a slightly more respectable substitute for the latter,” she wrote in response to Cook's column. “The point is that age arguments get dumped on women without much reflection.”
Example: Last year when it was announced Chelsea Clinton was pregnant the issue quickly (inexplicably?) became a topic for political commentary, with questions being raised if Hillary Clinton's pending grandmotherhood represented bad political news for her. And no, it wasn't just Fox News playing the sex/age card, asking if Clinton identifying herself as a grandmother might hurt against a possibly younger, more energetic Republican opponent.
MSNBC's Aliyah Frumin noted at the time:
The Christian Science Monitor ran a headline, “Chelsea Clinton baby: Will Hillary Clinton be less likely to run in 2016” ? and New York Times columnist Andrew Ross Sorkin argued the pregnancy will “change the dynamic of the campaign” on MSNBC's Morning Joe. Politico had a story, “What to expect when she's expecting” saying the “armchair thinking” is that having a grandchild “may make the Iowa State Fair a less appealing place to spend the summer of 2015. Why beg donors for money at dozens of events a month when there's a happy baby to spend time with in New York?”
Fact: Mitt Romney has 22 grandchildren. Will that become a topic of debate with commentators wondering if having so many grandkids means Romney won't want to run for president, or that he'd be distracted while campaigning? It certainly wasn't a media subject of interest during his 2012 campaign.
As Debbie Walsh, the director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University, told MSNBC last year, “There's a disproportionate attention to [Clinton] being a grandmother. Certainly, many men have run for president as grandfathers. And nobody worries if they can't do their job.”
To be clear, lots of political analysts who have weighed in on the topic of Clinton's age in the last year have concluded it won't, and shouldn't, matter. But the larger point is that Clinton's 67 years remain a recurring subject of scrutiny. And by regularly covering the issue the press has helped push a Republican talking point.
Or as Stephen Colbert put it last year, “I know it's rude to talk about a woman's age, but that's not what I am doing. I am talking about people talking about other people talking about other people talking about a woman's age. That's called journalism.”