McCain, confusion, aging, and ageism

McCain’s cognitive capacities don’t seem to be as strong as one would like in a President. It’s not age discrimination to say so.

Jim Geraghty of NRO whines about the Obama campaign’s frequent references to John McCain as “confused.” “Confused,” he says, calls up the stereotype of cognitive decline in an aging man, just as referring to Obama’s campaign as “a Mecca of misguided advisers” would call up the stereotype of Obama as Muslim. (I’m surprised the Fox News team hasn’t thought of that one yet; no doubt they will.)

The difference, of course, is that Obama is not a Muslim, while McCain is frequently and obviously confused.

Examples, just from recent memory: Shi’a/Sunni, Czechoslovakia, birth control, gay adoption, whose troops he wants to send to Afghanistan, cutting spending as an economic stimulus, how Social Security works, whether he’s for or against tax cuts for the rich, whether he’s for or against his own immigration bill, whether he intends to balance the budget (and the basic arithmetic of doing so), whether he’s acknowledged the limitations of his economic knowledge, whether Phil Gramm is an authority on economics, whether he wants to intervene in the foreclosure crisis, whether he’s actually against torture.

Of course, some of those may be conscious evasions and deceptions rather than confusions, but “He seems to be confused” is a well-understood euphemism for “He’s fibbing.”

Certainly, there’s both an age-discrimination-in-employment problem and a treating-seniors-disrespectfully problem, and no candidate should contribute to either of those, or to the stereotypes that help maintain them, including the stereotype of cognitive decline. (Yes, that stereotype has a real basis. As a statistical matter, cognitive ability does tend to decline with age — I hope I’m wiser than I was forty years ago, but I doubt I could re-learn analytic function theory — and some of the diseases of aging can accelerate parts of that process. But using that statistical fact against any particular old person is still wrong.)

So if McCain seemed sharp, it would be wrong (though not false) for the Obama people to point out that, at his age, we can’t be confident he’d stay sharp through a Presidential term. (Remember Reagan?)

Similarly, it would be wrong (is wrong) for the right wing to play falsely with anti-black stereotypes (lazy, dishonest, “unqualified,” “affirmative-action candidate”) in attacking Obama. But the falsehood is essential to the wrongness. If Obama rather than McCain had just avoided flunking out of college, would it be wrong for his opponents to point that out, merely because one of the stereotypes of African-Americans is that they are poorly educated? If he had a record of slacking off in his legislative duties, would it be wrong for his opponents to point that out, merely because one of the stereotypes of African-Americans is that they don’t work hard? I can’t see why, any more than the fact that Jack Abramoff was a cartoon-character crooked Jew made it anti-Semitic to notice that he was crooked.

Actually, I think McCain is catching a break on his fuzziness precisely because his opponents and the press are reluctant to be seen as raising the age issue. His on-camera melt-down on the birth control issue, for example, didn’t dominate last Sunday’s talk shows, as it surely would have had Obama turned in a comparable performance.

Is McCain’s fuzziness a product of age? I have no idea. Lots of people McCain’s age remain razor-sharp. Some observers say that he was much sharper a decade ago, but even if that’s true it’s not dispositive. Only a careful set of tests could distinguish among normal (non-specific) aging effects, specific diseases, drug side-effects (e.g., continuing to drink, even moderately, while using Ambien), emotional strain occasioned either by fear of losing or fear of winning, or mere tiredness after a year of fairly hard campaigning. Or maybe he was no fuzzier ten years ago, but it’s more noticeable now that he’s a finalist for the Presidency. “The higher a monkey climbs, the better you can see his butt.”

But whatever its cause or time-course, the fuzziness itself is pretty obvious, and obviously relevant. The man we’ve been seeing on the tube lately &#8212 the man who regards”learning to use the internet” as some huge challenge, like learning classical Greek &#8212 has no business occupying the Oval Office.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: