By Marc A. Thiessen
After a disastrous performance in his first debate with Walter Mondale, many in the media began to openly question the then-73-year-old Ronald Reagan’s mental fitness. Writing in the New York Times, James Reston pointed out that Reagan “got his figures mixed up, and didn’t seem to be mentally alert in dealing with Mr. Mondale’s arguments.” The Wall Street Journal noted that “the president’s rambling responses and occasional apparent confusion injected an unpredictable new element into the race” and pointed out that at age 75, “10 percent of people suffer from significant mental impairment — senile dementia, or senility.” The networks ran montages of Reagan stumbling over his words and brought on doctors to discuss the effects of aging on mental capacity.
When the second debate came around, Reagan put the aging question to rest with his now famous line: “I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience.” A decade later, Reagan announced to the world that he had Alzheimer’s disease.
Joe Biden is 77, four years older than Reagan was during the 1984 campaign. If Biden is elected, he’ll be older on the day he takes office than Reagan was on the day he left office. So yes, his mental fitness is a legitimate issue.
There is plenty of cause for concern. Biden recently announced, “I think we can win back the House” and promised to ban the “AR-14.” He mistook Super Tuesday for “Super Thursday,” and forgot the words of the Declaration of Independence, saying “We hold these truths to be self-evident. All men and women are created, by the, you know, you know the thing.” In South Carolina, he misstated what office he was running for, declaring “My name’s Joe Biden. I’m a Democratic candidate for the United States Senate.” On three occasions last month, Biden declared he was arrested in South Africa trying to visit Nelson Mandela in prison — an incident his campaign later admitted never happened. He earlier described meeting a Navy captain in Afghanistan, but The Post reported that “almost every detail in the story appears to be incorrect.” He claimed to have worked with Chinese leader “Deng Xiaoping” on the Paris Climate Accord (Deng died in 1997). He claimed during a debate that “150 million people have been killed [by guns] since 2007” (which would be nearly half the U.S. population). He said he met with Parkland victims while he was vice president even though the shooting took place after he left office. He has declared that Democrats should “choose truth over facts” and that “poor kids are just as bright and just as talented as white kids.” He pledged to use biofuels to power “steamships.” He repeatedly gets confused about what state he is in; called “Fox News Sunday” anchor Chris Wallace “Chuck”; said his late son Beau “was the attorney general of the United States”; and confused former British prime minister Theresa May with the late British prime minister Margaret Thatcher.
Any one of these gaffes in isolation would be nothing more than that. But taken together they form a pattern — and raise questions about whether Biden has experienced a cognitive decline. Biden’s defenders say this is unfair, and some have even suggested raising it is ageism. No, it’s not. His socialist rival, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) is 78 — almost a year older than Biden — yet no one is questioning his mental fitness. Recently Sanders spent an hour at a Fox News town hall where he was challenged to defend his policies and answered in great detail and without any gaffes or senior moments. Could Biden do the same?
Many of President Trump’s critics have suggested that he suffers from cognitive impairment. Well, in 2018, Trump took a test designed to screen for dementia — the Montreal Cognitive Assessment — and the White House physician reported he received a perfect score. Will Biden submit to the same test?
Sanders took a subtle dig at Biden during the town hall, pointing out that while he speaks for 45 minutes to an hour at his campaign events, Biden recently spoke for seven minutes. The two men had their first mano-a-mano recently. How did Biden perform over the course of a two-hour discussion? He largely got through the debate without any major gaffes, while Sanders repeatedly confused the coronavirus with ebola, later acknowledging his mistakes.
This much is certain: Democrats are about to pick a man they hope will be the first octogenarian president in American history. It is fair to ask whether voters are choosing a candidate who’s not up to the job.
Follow Marc A. Thiessen on Twitter, @marcthiessen.
(c) 2019, The Washington Post Writers Group