Column: Is Nikki Haley's 'Grumpy Old Men' campaign fair play, or a cheap shot?

U.S. President Donald Trump and Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden participate in the first presidential debate
Nikki Haley's "Grumpy Old Men" ad is telling us that Donald Trump, left, and Joe Biden appear to be suffering from dementia, so it's OK to make fun of them. (Getty Images)

The Nikki Haley digital ad calling President Biden and former President Trump a couple of “Grumpy Old Men” is loaded with gaffes.

In a string of video clips, Biden stumbles over his words during public appearances, while Trump misstates the name of the Iowa city he’s in and calls the prime minister of Hungary the leader of Turkey.

The ad ends with an image of Biden, 81, and Trump, 77, outfitted like Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon in the 1993 movie “Grumpy Old Men.”

So here’s the question: Is it fair criticism, or a cheap shot?

A little of both, I’d say, although with Biden, I don’t think of him as particularly grumpy, and there are times when being grumpier might help his cause.

Yes, age is an obvious issue in the presidential campaign, and in the perfect scenario, we wouldn’t be recycling the same old names and ideas. Biden and Trump’s sharpest days are behind them, and there’s no telling what kind of shape either might be in four or five years from now.

Read more: Despite 2 losses, Nikki Haley tries to claim victory thus far in the Republican presidential race

So I think it’s legit for Haley to question their fitness for a humongously important and monumentally taxing job going forward. (As a side note, it’s hard to shed any tears for Trump, who’s fired off his own shots about Biden’s age and takes sick delight in demeaning and insulting people of all ages.)

The problem with the “grumpy” ad is that it crosses a line, mocking the front-runners as fumbling old fools and stooping to stereotypes about aging that further reinforce stereotypes about aging.

The stumbles from Biden — who has a speech impediment, by the way — and Trump are followed by memes with clips of sitcom and movie actors helping to make the point, and laugh lines such as “say what?” or “I’m so confused.”

In other words, the ad is telling us these guys appear to be suffering from dementia, so let’s make fun of them.


Read more: Column: Is age really just a number? Not when it comes to Biden and Trump

“This is sad, but not unexpected,” said Dr. Laura Mosqueda, director of the National Center on Elder Abuse. “As politicians get more desperate, they become more mean-spirited. Ms. Haley saw an opportunity to appeal to ageist tropes and seized it.”

Haley is expected to lose to Trump in the Feb. 24 primary in her home state of South Carolina, which helps explain her desperation and the rollout of digital ads and mailers hammering the age issue. After all, this is American politics, where there’s very little traffic on the high road.

Last year, when the now-deceased Sen. Dianne Feinstein was cited as an example of someone too old to serve, at 89, Mosqueda told me the issue wasn’t age, but competence. People in their 70s and 80s lead rock and roll bands and run corporations with no sign of fading away anytime soon, but in Mosqueda’s opinion, Feinstein’s decline made her unfit for the job she was elected to do.

Nikki Haley standing at lectern
At a campaign stop, Republican candidate for president Nikki Haley asked: "Don't you think we need to have mental competency tests for anyone over 75?" (Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

Haley, on the other hand, has an obsession with age.

“Don’t you think we need to have mental competency tests for anyone over 75?” she asked at a campaign stop in South Carolina.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who’s a year older than Biden, defied stereotypes as a presidential candidate in 2016 and 2020 by inspiring legions of true believers young enough to be his grandchildren. In a recent interview, he said the question for presidential candidates isn’t “how old are you,” but whether you believe in climate change, a woman’s right to choose and fair wages.

“Age is an issue, but there are a lot of broader issues than just that,” Sanders said.

Dr. Gene Dorio, a member of the volunteer California Senior Legislature and past president of the Los Angeles County Commission for Older Adults, watched Haley’s “Grumpy Old Men” ad and summed it up with a single word.

“Ageism,” said the geriatric specialist, adding that Haley is in effect belittling and degrading anyone who might be suffering from dementia. “This is insensitive to seniors and family members of those who might be developing this sad and life-changing malady.”

Read more: Column: In Sen. Feinstein’s death, lessons for all of us about when to leave work behind

You hear people say that ageism is the last “ism” that’s socially acceptable, or, as Boston University professor Bronwyn Keefe put it in a recent interview with BU Today, it’s normalized to the point that the masses might not find the Haley ad campaign offensive.

“Ageism is just pervasive,” she said. “When you go to CVS or somewhere to get a birthday card, it’s everywhere — jokes about being older, not being able to hear. … It’s one of the most normalized forms of discrimination. And it’s accepted.”

I called Keefe, who runs the BU School of Social Work’s Center for Aging & Disability Education & Research, and she offered an example to illustrate her point about the Haley ad campaign.

“It makes me think about that time when Trump was making fun of a person with a disability … and there was a real outpouring of ‘this is not OK.’ There isn’t that same outpouring when somebody makes fun of somebody who’s stumbling and is portrayed as an old fumbling adult,” Keefe said.

You’d expect a sharp satirical take from “Saturday Night Live” on the age of presidential candidates, Keefe said, but in the context of a campaign attack ad, it’s “pejorative and harmful.”

While it’s OK to talk about mental acuity, Keefe said, “age is an arbitrary kind of thing in many ways,” with people living longer and more productive lives and starting new chapters at what was once considered the washed-up age of 65.

Read more: Column: Martha Stewart got her swimsuit cover at 81. But she also set an impossible standard

“There’s a dichotomy in society about how we portray older adults as either running marathons, or it’s Martha Stewart on the cover of Sports Illustrated, or they’re decrepit and falling apart,” Keefe said. “There’s no middle; however, we’re just human beings. … Where do we see the reflection of who we are as older adults in media and in the world?”

You see it here in Golden State, now and then. And if it doesn’t happen often enough, it’s OK to get grumpy about it.

Sign up for Essential California for news, features and recommendations from the L.A. Times and beyond in your inbox six days a week.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.