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The Elusive Search for the Political 'New Generation'

November 22, 1987|Ronald Brownstein | Ronald Brownstein covers politics for the National Journal

DES MOINES, IOWA — If it wasn't clear already, it became more evident earlier this month to 39-year-old Sen. Albert Gore Jr. (D-Tenn.), that running for President as the voice of a "new generation" involves more than quoting John F. Kennedy. Over one dizzying 10-day period, Gore found himself before entertainment heavyweights in Los Angeles defending his wife's campaign against rock-and-roll lyrics she considers obscene, and then explaining his youthful use of marijuana before a battery of television cameras in Des Moines. Before the first group, Gore was forced to explain that he really wasn't a square; before the second, that he wasn't as hip as it seemed.

These daunting cultural cross-currents are only the latest obstacle threatening the generational transition that loomed in the Democratic party after the 1984 presidential campaign. Inevitably, leadership is passing to younger people--even Massachusetts Gov. Michael S. Dukakis and Sen. Paul Simon of Illinois, the party's oldest contenders, were too young to vote for Franklin D. Roosevelt. But the appeal to the 1960s generation--the explicit call for a new group to rise up and take political power--hasn't yet played a major part in this race, as it did in 1984.

In 1984, the generational appeal helped launch then-Sen. Gary Hart because it was grounded in both demographic and political reality. With former Vice President Walter F. Mondale and AFL-CIO President Lane Kirkland providing the perfect foils, Hart's insurgency embodied resentment against party insiders that had festered since the Vietnam War.

With Mondale disposed of, and Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) out of the running, the path for the new-generation candidates seemed clear in 1988. Most of the Democrats who joined the hunt--Hart, former Arizona Gov. Bruce E. Babbitt, Sens. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.) and Gore, Rep. Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) and the Rev. Jesse Jackson--spent at least part of the 1960s shaping their political perspective in college or graduate school.

But the candidates haven't been able to tap those roots effectively. If anything, the jarring events of this year--from the stock market plunge to the incessant scandals in Washington--have made youth something of a handicap. It is probably no coincidence that the oldest candidates in both parties--Simon and Dukakis among the Democrats, and Vice President George Bush and Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.) for the Republicans--are now in the strongest positions. Even the baby boom generation may not be ready to turn over power to one of its own, argues Paul E. Maslin, a young pollster working for Simon.

What's gone wrong? For one thing, broad claims that baby boomers were waiting to march again were overstated from the start. Hart, who carried the Big Chill banner last time, seemed to sense the limits of that appeal and moved on in 1988 to broader concepts of "true patriotism" and "economic empowerment." Biden tried to take Hart's place, using quotes from John F. and Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King to evoke the tone of the civil rights and anti-war movements. Though his skillfully delivered speech moved audiences at first, eventually its unabashedly emotional appeal came to sound calculated.

Moreover, Biden's tributes to the '60s spirit tended to exaggerate his involvement in those events. At one level, that indicated a tendency that later proved fatal to his campaign; at another, it was a strangely fitting impulse, for Biden's speeches exaggerated the entire generation's involvement. One major survey of baby boomers last year found that only 25% were active in social protests at all. Biden recalled for baby boomers a past that neither he, nor they, shared.

As politicians across America have been reminded in recent weeks, that past involved activities more polarizing than idealistic marches and sit-ins. When Babbitt and Gore acknowledged having smoked marijuana, one Babbitt aide told reporters that everyone under 40 would understand. That may be true; but not everyone is under 40. In a recent New York Times/CBS poll, a plurality of Democrats over 45 said marijuana usage should disqualify a candidate from the presidency. Overall, a third of all Democrats said pot-smoking was cause enough for them to write off a candidate.

Though most attention has focused on the fact that a majority of Americans seem willing to forgive early marijuana use, in this case, the minority view is more telling. Older people, those most disturbed by the revelations, are the most likely voters in primaries. No candidate could afford to lose so much support on such a peripheral matter. If even a portion of that antipathy endures through the primaries, it would seriously damage any candidate--especially such little-known ones as this year's Democrats.

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