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Playing Politics for Baby Boomers

January 04, 1987|Ronald Brownstein | Ronald Brownstein covers politics for the National Journal

WASHINGTON — Let's face it: no one understands the baby boomers. Their parents didn't know how to reach them when they were growing up, and since they've reached voting age, politicians have had the same problem--a big problem.

In 1988, the baby boom generation could become half of the electorate. No group will be more important in selecting the next President. No group is more up for grabs. And no group is more misunderstood. As they settle into middle age, baby boomers display complexities to repudiate the stereotypes that emerged in the 1984 presidential campaign. Since then, we've learned that in many ways the baby boomers are more conservative than we thought but, paradoxically, less opposed to activist government than their votes for Ronald Reagan suggested. Mostly, it's become apparent than neither party owns boomer loyalties because neither has figured out exactly what boomers want.

"I don't think we've really touched them yet," said Democratic pollster Stanley B. Greenberg, a baby boomer himself. "Which party or candidate does that will go a long way toward deciding the 1988 election." In the last election, the generational appeal first unfolded through a series of speeches by Sen. Joseph R. Biden (D-Del.) and the presidential campaign of Sen. Gary Hart (D-Col.), both of which were shaped by pollster Patrick H. Caddell. Hart and Biden tried to stoke the dormant idealism of the "New generation" that marched its way through the 1960s. Their target was the tanned, toned yuppie who stopped hating capitalism somewhere around the time his income hit six figures, but who still harbored hopes of making the world a better place. Baby boomers were said to be conservative on economic issues and liberal on social ones, just waiting for an inspiring leader to reawaken social consciences.

Hart did well with the baby boom activists who bothered to turn out for the Democratic primaries. But in the general election, Ronald Reagan--despite his conservative views on social and environmental issues purportedly close to the idealistic heart of the 1960s generation--swept a much larger group of baby boom voters with an appeal to economic opportunity.

There should have been a lesson there. But Hart and Biden show every sign of stressing the idealism themes again as they seek the 1988 Democratic nomination. Hart has built recent speeches around what he calls "true patriotism"--the Kennedy-esque notion that "patriotism must again include a sense of obligation to improve the condition of our society." Laced with quotes from Martin Luther King, and John and Robert Kennedy, Biden's speeches evoke the spirit of the 1960s even more emotionally; he does everything but play old Motown hits as background music.

These appeals rest on two unspoken precepts: that baby boomers felt part of something larger when they were young and, having made it in the world, they want to feel that way again. The message hits some boomers dead on. And not surprisingly, they are the ones that politicians and their consultants know best--classmates from Harvard and Stanford, now toiling as unfulfilled $100,000-a-year wage slaves in Washington law firms and New York investment banks.

But since 1984, surveys show that both precepts don't apply to most baby boomers. Only a small percentage of the generation has achieved luxuriant economic security. Reagan's message of economic optimism hit home because most boomers are still trying to climb the ladder. Just 15% of their households had income exceeding $40,000 in 1983, while more than two-thirds got by on less than $30,000. Since 1973, the median income for families aged 25-44 has actually declined. Ralph W. Whitehead Jr., a University of Massachusetts professor who advises the Democrats on young voters, has coined a name for these down-scale, primarily service-sector citizens: new collars--neither white nor blue.

And there is no evidence that a majority of the '60s generation felt part of anything but adolescence at the time. In a 1986 study conducted by Yankelovich, Clancy Shulman, only 25% said they were at all active in social protest movements; the rest said they were wholly uninvolved. Many younger voters, worrying about making ends meet in their own families, even resent the appeal to idealism; it implies they have the time to worry about someone else's family, said Greenberg.

At second look, the boomers' views on social issues are also more complex than they appeared in 1984. True, baby boomers retain strong libertarian impulses on such issues as abortion and are put off by the GOP's dalliance with the religious right. But the passage into parenthood is battering their tolerance in important ways. A majority of boomers now believe the loosening in attitudes toward sexual conduct that occurred in the 1960 were for the worse, and a majority now support criminal penalties for possession of even small amounts of marijuana.

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