Just a few weeks ago, the Democratic presidential field had a first tier that was clearly defined and stable enough that some were treating the moment as immutable. No longer. Race-reshaping turbulence has struck two of the campaign’s top trio.
The oldest candidate, Bernie Sanders, has been temporarily sidelined by a heart attack. The second oldest, Joe Biden, is wrestling with a rumor-mongered mess partly of his own making. Only the third, Elizabeth Warren — age-wise, the youngest member of the Democrats’ septuagenarian set — has proceeded politically apace.
Sanders, 78, knew his age could be an issue in this campaign, but believed it was surmountable. “I’m very blessed with my health,” he said a year ago. “I literally cannot remember the last time I missed a day because of illness.”
That, obviously, has now changed. Sanders, who went out for a walk on Monday, says he will continue his run. But the heart problem that rendered him hors de combat for a week underscores this reality: One’s late 70s is hardly the time to assume one of the world’s most grueling jobs. Look for his campaign’s slow fade to accelerate as that sinks in with voters.
By bringing the age factor to the fore, Sanders’ problems may also increase scrutiny of former vice president Biden, 76, who suffered two life-threatening brain aneurysms three decades ago. Such a focus is not good news for a man whose every verbal miscue already raises questions about whether he’s having a senior moment. More broadly, however, Sanders’ setback underscores the need for all candidates to release a comprehensive summary of their health records — and not on the eve of the primaries, but before the end of this year.
But Biden’s real test by turbulence comes from the way the Trump-led conservative attack machine has thrust his son Hunter’s business dealings into the spotlight. To be clear, Trump’s allegations of corruption are completely unsupported and as such, qualify as a smear campaign. Yet it’s a smear campaign that highlights some legitimate vulnerabilities for Biden.
One is that Hunter Biden, who has had a troubled adulthood, certainly seems to have been slip-streaming his father’s high-powered career, landing opportunities he wouldn’t otherwise have had. Americans instinctively dislike that kind of name-exploiting privilege. (That said, Trump supporters don’t seem to have any objections about similar concerns that swirl around First Daughter Ivanka Trump or husband Jared Kushner.)
Nor does Joe Biden seem to have established any clear boundaries with his son. He reportedly didn’t want to address the matter at the time, and diffident aides were reluctant to push it. Finally, Biden’s campaign doesn’t seem to know how to deal with the scrutiny Trump has brought. Asked about the appearance of a conflict of interest on Friday, the candidate conjugated himself into high, finger-pointing dudgeon.
“It’s not a conflict of interest. There has been no indication of any conflict of interest, from Ukraine or anywhere else, period,” Biden said, and then, as a reporter pressed, added: “I’m not going to respond to that. Let’s focus on the problem. Focus on this man, what he’s doing that no president has ever done. No president.”
There’s little doubt that Trump is in a league of his own as a political drive-by calumniator. Still, Biden is going to have to do better to weather this controversy, assuage doubts, and keep his campaign’s safe-harbor standing intact.
Which brings us to the beneficiary of these storm-tossed weeks: Elizabeth Warren. At 70, she too is outside the age range voters prefer in a president. But unlike Biden and Sanders, Warren looks at least a decade younger than her chronological years. She seems to brim with energy and to have a fast and firm grasp of the facts.
Over the course of her campaign, Warren has grown from single digits to leapfrog Sanders and make this a Biden-Warren race — for the time being. But as the last few weeks have demonstrated, nothing is set in concrete. There is time aplenty for minds to change — and for other candidates to rise.Scot Lehigh can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeScotLehigh.