What's Age Got To Do With It?

Suggestions that House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi should step aside from her position based on her age are discriminatory.

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House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi announces that she wants to remain as the top House Democrat, Nov. 14, 2012.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi announces that she wants to remain as the top House Democrat, Nov. 14, 2012.

Women, African-Americans, and Latinos flexed a well-cut political muscle in this month's elections, playing a strong role in re-electing President Barack Obama and contributing to the most diverse House of Representatives in history.

But there appears to be a new glass ceiling in town, and it's age.

House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, 72, announced this week she would seek re-election as her party's leader. Pelosi, the first female Speaker of the House before Democrats lost the majority in 2010, said she wanted to continue the work she has done—not just for the careers of the scores of female Democratic congresswomen behind her, but for issues important to the Democrats.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the Democratic Party.]

Then a question came from one of the younger members of the press corps: Is it a good idea that the entire Democratic team is in their 70s? Isn't there an argument for stepping aside to make way for a new generation of leaders—one who can appeal to younger voters that voted overwhelmingly Democratic this month?

Pelosi, rightly, called the question "offensive," and wondered aloud, rightly, whether that question had been asked of the Senate's white, male, 70-year-old Republican leader, Mitch McConnell. The women onstage hissed. One called it "discrimination." And Pelosi, eventually, simply said "No. The answer to your question is no."

What is the underlying agenda here? Is it no longer socially acceptable to push someone out of a leadership position because of gender or race, so the tactic shifts to age? The Republican leadership is entirely white, and includes, as of this week's leadership election, only one female, who ranks fourth and last in the GOP leadership team. Did people think that having Pelosi as Democratic leader or the African-American James Clyburn as assistant Democratic leader was just some sort of diversity blip? Did this month's elections, in fact, not prove the exact opposite?

[See a collection of political cartoons on Congress.]

The question, however, was about Pelosi—and her stepping aside would most likely mean that an older member, 73-year-old Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer (who happens to be white and male) would become leader. Does that make for a more youthful team? Only if it frees up the third-ranking post—but then, why suggest that the only woman on the team get out of the way?

The question is not only offensive but illogical. There's a reason the more experienced members rise into leadership positions. They've been there longer, they know more, about both policy and the institution itself, and they've made more relationships that are critical to the job. Pelosi more than waited her turn. As a woman in politics, she had to do more, work more, and fight harder to get where she is. And for what—to be ousted because she's reached some sort of arbitrary expiration date?

There are those who blame Pelosi for the Democrats' failure to take back control of the House. That is not only unfair (districts decide elections, not congressional leaders) but an offensive view of Congress as a whole. The job of a party leader is to move legislation, not merely to expand the party's ranks. When Pelosi was speaker, she had an extraordinary record of getting legislation passed. She won approval of everything the White House wanted, including a climate change bill that was extremely difficult to get votes for, since it had more regional energy implications than ideological ones. When she lost the speakership, there were some 300 bills sitting in the Senate, awaiting action. Pelosi's party may have lost the majority, but she was one of the strongest and most effective speakers of the modern era.

[See a Slideshow of Women of the Senate.]

Her age has nothing to do with it, and in fact, probably increases her power. And in Washington, people hit their career strides in their late 60s and early 70s. Utah Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch is 78 and never bothers with the subways connecting the Capitol to the Senate Office buildings, preferring to race past the other strollers in the walkway. Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry is 68 and not only a relentless worker, but continues to play an impressive game of hockey—oh, and he goes on 100-mile bike rides to raise money for cancer research.

Maybe some of the younger members are frustrated, wanting power they have yet to earn with experience. Or maybe the age question is just a proxy issue to weed out those women who insist on staying in powerful roles they spent decades acquiring. But if the elections showed anything, it's that this country's power structure has changed. African-Americans, Latinos, and women aren't content to sit at the back of the political bus. And nor should they—no matter how old they are.

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