WASHINGTON — It's been a long time since a Republican presidential nomination pivoted on a clear generational conflict, but that seems to be developing between Vice President George Bush and Senate GOP leader Bob Dole of Kansas. And much significance lies in the fact that the divisions do not reflect such generational issues as Social Security or the 21st-Century burden of our record deficits. Instead, they go to the heart of the incipient great debate on current U.S. economics and politics: the growing national tension between optimism and skepticism, between romanticism and Realpolitik.
By these eternal generational yardsticks, today's split makes sense. By strict ideology, though, it marks a reversal of what prevailed two decades ago, when the conservative tide first began to roll over the naive idealism and youth-oriented culture of the 1960s. There's no small irony in how many "experts" believe that the politics of youth are the politics of the future. If anything, the opposite is true.
Today's revealing context is the sharp, unprecedented division in age between voters supporting the two leading Republican presidential contenders--Bush and Dole. The coalition that elected Ronald Reagan in 1980 and 1984 is dividing along what could be a critical fault line. Bush has overwhelming support among young people, brought under the Republican banner by the optimistic policies and style of the Reagan Administration. Backing for Dole, by contrast, rises steadily with age and experience. No previous parallel comes to mind, not even 1952's intraparty division between Dwight D. Eisenhower and Robert A. Taft. Youth preferred Eisenhower, the war hero, over the prim and fusty Taft, but not by the sort of lopsided majorities Bush now enjoys.
Striking numbers can be found in opinion surveys and none paints a more vivid picture than a March ABC News poll. Young 18-29-year-old Republicans split 46% for Bush, 16% for Dole and 9% for Rep. Jack Kemp of New York. For those between the ages of 31 and 44, Bush's lead shrinks to just six points. Above age 45, it's a Dole electorate. Republicans aged 45-60 give the Kansas senator a slim three-point edge, but those 60 or above split decisively--Dole 43%, Bush 27% and Kemp 5%. Similar patterns can be found in the latest Des Moines Register Iowa Poll and Boston Globe New Hampshire Poll. Bush is strongest among the young. Dole does best with older voters. And Kemp is a weak third.
On the surface, there's no great logic in these divisions. All three of the GOP contenders are well-known. Bush's name recognition level is over 90% and Dole's is just a bit behind. As for demeanor, the vice president does have a certain Yalie gosh-golly youthfulness, but, like Dole, he's in his early 60s. If anything, Dole's acerbic wit and flippant style would seem more likely to appeal to younger voters. What's extraordinary is Bush's 5-1 lead over Kemp among young Americans--even though Kemp, a still boyish-looking 51-year-old former football player, has tailored much of his campaign and "opportunity" rhetoric to voters under 30.
With Bush so unlikely a candidate to command stong youth support in his own right, the explanation must lie elsewhere--probably that Bush, as Reagan's vice president, can tap the large following the Reagan Administration managed to build among young people. Surveys have shown Americans who came of age in the 1980s are strongly pro-Reagan and, by derivation, more conservative and more Republican than their elders.
As of 1987, though, it's a tricky set of allegiances for conservatism, the GOP and Bush himself. For the vice president, support from youth underscores the importance of his Reagan connection--which in turn underscores his vulnerability should Reaganism implode before the 1988 election or some other Republican contender displace Bush's claim to be the President's heir. Kemp hasn't managed that, but another potential entrant, former Nevada Sen. Paul Laxalt, is Reagan's best friend. He might finesse it. And it's possible that Dole's humor could begin to woo away younger Republicans.
For the conservative movement and the Republican Party, however, the challenge is on a grander scale. To many strategists, baby-boom loyalty is the key to a party and ideological majority. Before the Iran- contra affair, there was even talk about a hegemony reaching into the next century. That seems a little unrealistic today. But the underlying hope remains.
History, however, suggests caution. Baby-boom-focused GOP strategists would do well to remember that if post-adolescent loyalties were the key to the electoral future, the success of George McGovern-era liberalism would have been assured. Colleges pulsed to the beat of demonstrations against the Vietnam War and conservative politicians were reviled. But the older voters turning to the right foreshadowed the emerging shift of the 1970s and 1980s--not the kids.