Aging Democratic presidential contenders: Please step aside

Congress Health Overhaul
It seems that the 76-year-old Bernie Sanders, shown speaking in Kentucky in July, is the recognized Democratic front runner.

The summer of 2017 was a good one. My wife and I packed up our two grandchildren — waved a quick goodbye to their parents (with earnest promises of frequent FaceTime) — and took off on a monthlong camping tour of the national parks. The Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, and Glacier will never be the same.

Along the way I had the chance to teach my grandson and granddaughter how to roast hot dogs and marshmallows over an open campfire, and it reminded me that there is more to life than the maniacal threats of Kim Jong Un. In the years ahead the grandkids won’t often think of their Papa’s many years in public office, but they’ll remember that campfire.

We traveled 7,100 miles, ran through two sets of tires, and crossed America one DQ at a time — but ultimately, the real journey was one of the heart.

There’s a lesson here for some of our would-be presidents. You’re too old.

To state it bluntly, there are better things for you to be doing at this point in life than doggedly pursuing public office — better for you, your family, and most important, better for the country. There’s a whole generation of American leadership standing behind you. They need to step forward, and you need to step out of the way.

This past week a number of Washington pundits began their 2020 presidential ruminations. It seems that Bernie Sanders, age 76, is the recognized Democratic front-runner. Joe Biden, age 74, is keeping his options open. And although she’s clearly got a touch of presidential fever, Elizabeth Warren supposedly won’t run if Bernie gets in the race (you can split the socialist vote only so many ways), but astonishingly, at age 68, she’s the voice of youthful vigor.

At this point, about all the Democratic Party needs to ensure yet another catastrophic failure is for Hillary (turning 70 next month) to pledge a comeback.

A rich and fulfilling life doesn’t have to be lived in the Oval Office. A campfire will do quite nicely.

When it comes to aging ambition, I have considerable empathy. I’ll be 70 years old when we hold our next presidential election. We baby boomers have benefited from stunning advances in health care that now allow for an active life many decades longer than our parents could ever have envisioned. I’m in no great hurry to implement my living will. In fact, my current plan is to go back to school full time in 2019, hopefully in Ireland, to earn a master’s degree on the GI Bill. I don’t want to preach the gospel of lifelong learning, I want to live it.

And then, with luck, I’ll come back home from Ireland in 2020 just in time to vote for the Democratic candidate for president.

My prayer is that the 2020 Democratic presidential nominee will represent — indeed, embody — the intelligence, compassion, civility, energy, and courage of an entirely new generation of American leadership. You won’t get that from Bernie, Joe, Elizabeth, or Hillary. In fact, it seems to me that even Kirsten Gillibrand and Sherrod Brown are starting to look a little long in the tooth. Late-stage potty mouth is a sure sign of aging insecurity.

So let’s clear the bench of our current presidential contenders and instead, over the next two years (during the crucially important midterm elections of 2018), look for potential presidential candidates who are very smart, very serious, and in their 40s. OK, maybe their 50s. But don’t trust anyone over 60 — they belong in the Senate.

Let’s find a Democratic presidential candidate who has (and can forcefully articulate) a true passion for social justice, combined with a realistic understanding of the economic engine needed to pay for it. That’s not likely to be retreaded socialism.

And finally, let’s elect a Democratic president in 2020 who can thank Trump’s generals for keeping us out of nuclear war (they carry a very heavy load in their rucksacks), while recognizing that in a healthy democracy senior civilian offices should be filled, well, by civilians.

We have now been at war against terrorist fanatics for more than 16 years. That war has been fought by young men and women half my age. In 2020, let’s elect one of them president.

Paul McHale is a former Democratic member of the Pennsylvania General Assembly (1982-91), former member of Congress (1993-99), former assistant secretary of defense (2003-09), and a retired Marine colonel with more than 30 years’ active and reserve service.