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January 21, 2007

Obama the Anti-Boomer

Advice to Barack Obama: There is a right way to take advantage of your youth, and there is a wrong way—and you seem close to taking the wrong way.

It’s silly to argue that the baby-boomers as a generation are responsible for America’s polarized politics and that you can overcome the nation’s divisions because you came of age after the 1960s.

Polarization is the result of two distinct but related developments—neither of which is generational in origin.

The first is a polarization of the two major parties resulting the realignment of the south. The Democrats used to have more southern conservatives, and the Republicans used to have more northern liberals and moderates. But as the south has flipped to the GOP, the two parties have become more ideologically consistent and farther apart from each other. As a result, there are fewer members of Congress who cross over in their voting from one party to the other. This aspect of polarization is likely to be a long-term change.

The second development is the shift to the right of the Republican Party, partly resulting from the influx of southern conservatives. Polarization has not been symmetrical. The Republicans have moved much farther to the right than the Democrats have moved to the left; indeed, the Democrats continue to occupy much of the center: That was why Democrats were able to capture independent voters in 2006. This may or may not last.

Before the last election, Republicans seemed to benefit from the deliberate strategy of polarization promoted by Karl Rove: playing to their base rather than reaching into the middle. If Republicans shift to a less polarizing politics, it will be because the Rovian strategy has stopped working for them—not because of any generational turnover.

Of course, John F. Kennedy touted his age and presented himself as the leader of a new generation. So I can see, Barack, what example you may have in mind. But Kennedy didn’t make his case by criticizing the generation that preceded him.

In today’s New York Times, writing about your appeal (“Shushing the Baby Boomers”), John M. Broder quotes Eric Liu as saying to the baby-boom generation: “Thank you, here’s your gold watch, it’s time for the personal style and political framework of the 1960’s to get out of the way.”

Liu is identified as a speechwriter in the Clinton White House “who now runs a mentoring program in Seattle.” I take it he is not mentoring political candidates.

The baby boomers remain a large voting bloc. Insulting them by suggesting they share a dysfunctional “personal style and political framework” is just plain dumb.

But, Barack, there is a way for you to make a progressive generational appeal.

Many of the problems that Americans face today hit young people especially hard. I’m referring not only to the high rate of child poverty, but also to the difficulties faced by young adults in their twenties: high college costs; lack of access to jobs with good health benefits; the high costs of buying into the housing market. We need a Young America program to help create the kind of opportunities that the World War II generation enjoyed under the GI Bill.

Now that’s a generational appeal that not just the young, but their parents could go for.

Paul Starr



Anonymous Fred App said...

Maybe I missed it, but I've never seen Obama argue that baby-boomers are responsible for America's polarized politics.

I've seen him say that America is ready for politics that is different from what we've experienced recently, and I think that's inarguable.

And I've seen people interpret that as a smack on baby-boomers, but that's just lazy punditry.

I notice that you don't quote Obama in your piece, but you do quote Eric Liu -- who isn't even attached to the Obama campaign. I've heard of guilt by association before, but there's not even any association here.

If you're going to complain that Obama is doing something wrong, at least point to something that he's actually doing.

January 22, 2007 3:49 PM  

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