Election 2024

Nikki Haley Positions Herself as the Anti-Gerontocracy Candidate

Haley seeks to make her relative youthfulness a selling point. It hasn't caught on among primary voters, but it's nonetheless worth considering whether the oldest candidates are always the best.


The first Republican presidential primary debate is scheduled for later this month. So far at least 14 candidates have declared their intentions to run; former President Donald Trump is by far the presumed favorite, with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis running a distant second.

As the other candidates struggle to break out of a crowded pack, former United Nations ambassador and South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley has made her opposition to gerontocracy a key focus of her campaign.

When Haley announced her campaign in February—the first candidate other than Trump to get into the race—she took a veiled dig at both Trump and President Joe Biden. "It's time for a new generation of leadership," she charged in her announcement video. In her first campaign speech, Haley went even further, advocating for congressional term limits and "mandatory mental competency tests for politicians over 75 years old." While a bit crude, the tactic drew an effective contrast: Trump is 77 and Biden is 80; Haley, at 51, seems young and vibrant by comparison.

In April, Haley took a much more pointed shot at Biden, telling Fox News that "if you vote for Joe Biden you really are counting on a President Harris, because the idea that he would make it until 86 years old is not something that I think is likely," seeming to imply that Biden would either die or have to resign during a second term, at which point Vice President Kamala Harris would assume the top job.

Haley has continued to push this argument as her campaign has struggled to gain traction: As of this writing, FiveThirtyEight puts her polling average at 3.6 percent, a full 50 points behind Trump and more than 10 points behind Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.

Ahead of the August debate, the Republican National Committee (RNC) circulated "Beat Biden" pledges among the candidates, mandatory for participation. Signatories agree that if they don't win the nomination, they would still "honor the will of the primary voters and support the nominee in order to save our country and beat Joe Biden."

This week, Haley tweeted a picture of her signed pledge, though she crossed out Biden in the "Beat Biden" letterhead and wrote in "President Harris."

Haley's candidacy may be a long shot, and there is little for libertarians to like among her policy proposals—she has struggled, in a post-Trump Republican Party, to toe a line between MAGA populism and pragmatic conservatism, making neither case particularly convincingly.

But whether her pivot against America's rule by increasingly elder statesmen is sincere or simply a way to differentiate her from her competitors, it's certainly a proposal worth considering.

After all, each of the current frontrunners has had the distinction of being the oldest president sworn into office at their respective inaugurations. As recently as last year's midterm elections, the three highest-ranking officials in the U.S. House were all in their 80s. In the Senate, the average age is 64—one year shy of eligibility for Medicare and Social Security retirement benefits—and by the end of the year, two senators will be in their 90s.

There are consequences to this system of rule by the increasingly aged: Earlier this year, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D–Calif.) missed more than two months of work due to complications from shingles. During that time, her party was unable to advance any judicial nominees. A recent New York Times report on ongoing financial disagreements within Feinstein's family noted that the senator's daughter "has power of attorney over her mother's legal affairs."

Even when our elderly representatives are the picture of health, they often struggle with new ideas and ways of thinking. Politicians in their 70s and 80s set out to make rules that apply to new technologies like social media while clearly struggling to understand how those technologies work in the first place.

As Reason's Peter Suderman wrote last year, "There's a reason that American politics today feels so bereft of new ideas: Too many of the people at the top pretty clearly haven't had one in a very long time."