Column: The shtick is wearing thin for the Democrats’ trio of crotchety geezers

Democratic presidential candidates Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden at the debate in Charleston, S.C. Tuesday.
Two of the Democrats’ big three front-runner grumpy old men.
(Win McNamee / Getty Images)

America is said to be enraged. But on the debate stage Tuesday night in South Carolina we didn’t hear much righteous indignation or revolutionary anger. Instead, the candidates seemed irritable.

Huffy. Crotchety. The kitsch version of outrage.

For the record:

1:56 p.m. Feb. 28, 2020A previous version of this piece cited the ages Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden would be upon inauguration, not their current ages.

And the ones who best nailed the crotchety shtick were the trio of geezers: former Vice President Joe Biden, former New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.).

With serious threats looming large — a coronavirus pandemic, a market crash and another disastrous term for President Trump — it’s not a great time for kitsch. But here we are.

Even as they hold the lead in Democratic polls, these guys aren’t aiming to play wise graybeards. They seem more like residents of a midlevel retirement home, bickering over the remote and confused to tears by the Roku. Except they’re tussling over the presidency, and perhaps confused to tears by an electorate in which boomers are fading and Gen Z is rising. In November, for the first time, people born in the 1990s will have a bigger share of the electorate than the Silent Generation (born 1925 to 1945).


You could see the tetchiness in their sitcom body language Tuesday night. Joe, 77, huffed when he felt others were getting more time at the mic. Mike, 78, sniffed and rolled his eyes. And Bernie, 78, waved his arms and didn’t even bother to use an ear horn to hear the questions. He just said whatever popped into his head.

So why is this geriatric stuff playing at all with the kids? Sanders is, of course, an icon for young voters. But Biden may be gaining there: In a recent poll in Oklahoma, a Super Tuesday state, Biden carried nearly 44% of 18- to 34-year-olds, just about doubling Sanders’ percentage And while Bloomberg has been failing so far with the young, his pricey effort to blitz them with memes has associated him with, if nothing else, novelty, irony and a commitment to beating Trump.

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Robert Venturi, the American architect, once observed that people tend to resent and reject the sensibility of their parents’ generation, while revering that of their grandparents. To Gen Z, someone like Sanders comes off as a rad old Marxist who once lived in a maple sugar shack with a dirt floor. He’s not a beetle-browed OK boomer sweating it out in a corporate job and on a Peloton.

In the 1990s, David Letterman — now a crotchety old man himself — used to bring on his show a character called Larry “Bud” Melman, played by the apparently doddering Calvert DeForest. The show described Melman as a “mascot” and put him up to embarrassing stunts; he never failed to get a laugh from Letterman’s young viewers.

Now we have mascots running for president.

In their heyday, fearsome white men with money and position, like these candidates, could crush the rest of us. In the autumn of their years, they’re less ferocious, more open and, best of all, more ironic about manly power. They make jokes about being short and bald. In general, they’re sympathetic.

But they also get riled. The same goes for middle-aged people born after 1942 . Half the time, a sweet yogic surrender to aging seems possible; the other half we’re making a manic grab for Botox and relevancy.


The problem with Biden, Bloomberg and Sanders isn’t necessarily waning health. For all their accomplishments, they are provincials, each born at the dawn of the 1940s, five or six wars ago. They retain the regional accents of Medford, Mass., Scranton, Pa., and Brooklyn that have all but disappeared in their childhood neighborhoods, which have changed in every way.

And most of all: At a time when more than half of people in America younger than 15 are nonwhite (black, Latino, Asian and more), the geezer trio have hair and complexions the color of powdered wigs.

Their formative experiences are simply at odds with those of most voters. The mothers of these men came of age without the vote. When they grew up, Jim Crow ruled the South and pervaded every region. They were at the height of their powers in the “Mad Men” years of sex discrimination and carousing that would today be actionable, if not jailable. They were probably in their 50s when they first saw the World Wide Web.

And they seem to have lost, above all, their capacity to be taught. To learn requires a kind of submission that’s anathema to most powerful men in old age. It requires cognitive flexibility, a forfeiture of authority and a willingness to admit ignorance.

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None of this appears to come easy to these three men, who seem to have convinced themselves they’ve always been right. Right on labor, gay marriage, taxes, civil rights, crime, feminism, guns and all those wars. But what are the chances they’ve been right all this time, by the standards of 2020?

If you’re over 40, think of the mystification you may still feel about the blockchain or #gamergate. That’s got to be how someone nearly 80 feels about reparations, identity politics, trans rights and #MeToo.


And there’s the rub: The old men in the race don’t instinctively grasp the dangers of nondisclosure agreements or the continuing reality of police brutality. They don’t know what they don’t know.

When Bloomberg seemed to forget whether “Politburo” was the right word for the advisors to the Chinese Communist Party, he pivoted to call it “their group of people.” And then Biden helpfully defined a “no-fly zone” as “you can’t fly through our zone.” Sanders just kept up the bluster, barely pretending to be on the ball.

The stumbles that mark these three men as holdovers rather than visionaries might be endearing in less perilous times. But we already have a kitsch geezer president — and, as America now knows, the joke wears off quickly.