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Pretend Primary: Generational Politics

As we enter the homestretch in our Washington area Pretend Presidential Primary--be sure to be here two weeks from today, Dec. 13, for the big vote, well ahead of the Iowa or New Hampshire contests--let's look at a topic that's not strictly local, but perhaps has more resonance in Virginia, Maryland and the District than in some other parts of the country.

There's been little overt discussion in this campaign of generational politics--of the role the candidates' ages has in their political formation and approach, and in how they would lead the nation. But the rifts and polarization brought to us by the boomer generation are very much at the heart of the '08 election, and it may be helpful to consider how their age and experience colors the candidates' attractiveness as potential presidents.

Virginia of late has seeped itself in the culture wars that stem from the Vietnam War. And as befits a state with a fast-changing population and a new demographic bulge of post-boomers, Virginia is changing in fascinating and contradictory ways. It's no longer a dependably Republican, conservative state in the Reaganesque sense of the idea, but neither is it anything close to a Democratic, liberal stronghold. Rather, Virginia is a much more interesting blend of ideologies and practical realities than anything you'll find in most presidential campaigns. Maryland is easier to stereotype politically, but even there, we've seen more of a blend of political passions than the national presidential campaigns like to admit to.

What we're seeing in the Washington region, as in some other parts of the country, is a new, post-Vietnam mix of leftish-libertarian social ideals with a healthy skepticism about power and money--all tempered by a genuine fear that our country has muffed the post-9/11 challenge and is on the way toward doing the same with both the future of our personal freedoms and the difficulty of our energy and environmental situations. What candidate speaks to that large middle of American voters, the folks who are turned off by the slogans of both right and left? None, really. So let's ask the next question: Which candidates are most likely to act in ways that that large middle group would find at least somewhat digestible?

The answer, my friends, is blowing through the pages of the calendar. Because while we have one certified pre-boomer who carries a classic set of Greatest Generation values with him--John McCain--we also have only one candidate who can be defined as at all post-boomer, and that would be Barack Obama, who is being touted by some observers--Andrew Sullivan in The Atlantic makes the case best--as the only way to escape the Vietnam/boomer/culture wars polarization and paralysis that infect our politics.

The rest of the crowd fits smack into the middle of the boomer demographic. Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton, Bill Richardson, Rudy Giuliani, and Mitt Romney would all be over 60 when inaugurated as president. Obama would be 47. John Edwards would be 55. Now, of course, age does not necessarily determine politics or personality, but many of this year's candidates are very much caught up in the rhetoric and ideas of their generation. Their ways of viewing the divisions in the country are defined by their experiences from Vietnam to the sexual and academic revolutions of the 60s and 70s to the media-hardened, culture war categories of later years. Obama, much as he promises to force Americans to look at race in a post-civil rights era manner, seems in his speeches at least to yearn for and promise a politics that considers irrelevant the brittle categories of recent years.

That doesn't mean Obama could actually deliver on that promise, of course. And there's a good argument that he is too green for the job (though the same argument seems compelling about Clinton, who has no more experience in elective office.)

Does age matter in this election? Do the life experiences these folks bring to their campaigns result in a different lens, a different way of attacking our problems?

(And what other topics, particularly those of regional interest, should we take up here in the last days before our Pretend Primary?)

By Marc Fisher |  November 29, 2007; 6:33 AM ET
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JFK never delivered on on all his alleged promise as a politician. He was just like the rest as crooked and underhanded as they come. Camelot please what a joke.
His daddy was a criminal with organized crime ties. Whole family are a bunch of scumbag thiefs.

Politicians are politicians and they always will be. Read your Greek and Roman history. They dont change!

Posted by: Anonymous | November 29, 2007 9:20 AM

Fisher writes "...while we have one certified pre-boomer who carries a classic set of Greatest Generation values with him--John McCain..."

You're forgetting about Pon Paul, Marc.

Posted by: Anonymous | November 29, 2007 10:00 AM

I'm so....resigned about the current slate of options. I'm young. And I'm sick of Boomers. Has the world ever seen such a group of self-righteous, self-entitled screw ups as this? Yipee, you fought and/or protested Vietnam? That doesn't make you special. You basked in the glory of the '80s, making money under the mantra of "Greed is Good"? Wow, thanks for the fall out from that one. You now need your McMansion in the exburbs and your giant SUV and MORE MORE MORE!!!!!!? Way to go, making the irresponsible choices. We, your kids, are the ones being left to pick up the pieces of the disaster that is the boomers. And we're sick and tired of it. That's why so many are tuned out and turned off (maybe I should take a clue, but unfortunately, politics is like crack without the prison sentence). NO ONE is speaking to us about the issues that matter to us-the crushing debt, the collapsing infrastructure, and on and on.

Come on, boomers, take TWO MINUTES out of your day and talk to us about the things that matter to us-what are you going to do about the fact that higher eduction increasingly equals a lifetime of major debt? What are you going to do about the fact that those of us in fields that serve the public are under paid, under funded, and dangerously balanced on the edge of making ends meet and falling into the abyss? What are you going to do about the millions of immigrants who live in this country in limbo, as you looked the other way all those years, benefiting from cheap labor, landscaping, and food, and now are howling about all the "Mexicans" taking jobs? What are you going to do about the disaster of a world you're leaving us?

We've now been through two highly contested elections where younger Americans have turned out in record numbers and still no one will talk with us, Democrats and Republicans alike. And as the current slate of boomer politicians continue to drone on about the things that matter to them-and not the things that affect EVERYONE in this country regardless of age-as they continue to look down upon us who were born after them as some sort of lower life form, younger Americans and going to continue to become more bitter and disillusioned with the "great" boomer generation that can't shut up about how great they are, but can't seem to fix all the problems they've created.

Posted by: Birdie | November 29, 2007 10:29 AM

"JFK never delivered on on all his alleged promise as a politician."

You're right, what's his excuse? Where is he anyway?

Posted by: Josey23 | November 29, 2007 10:55 AM

Now, Birdie, we boomers do NOT all live in McMansions. I am 48 and live in a modest condo, pursuing a career that I enjoy but that doesn't pay the six figures. I never had kids and most of my relatives are dead, so you'd better believe I'm scared about my "golden years" and the debt that our society has racked up. It's as wrong to stereotype my generation as it is to stereotype yours as "a bunch of slackers who still live off their parents."

Posted by: P.G. Gal | November 29, 2007 11:02 AM

As a person who was born in 1948, I do NOT identify with most of what "boomers" are supposed to be. I think that we are often self-absorbed and insecure. However, most of the control politics has been vested in the older generations, Bill Clinton, not withstanding. George W. owes his existence entirely to Bush41, that older generation.
It is important to note, that is was NOT the boomers that voted Clinton into office in 1992, it was those over 65 who did. We knew better.

Posted by: Peter Roach | November 29, 2007 11:34 AM

We need a new 3rd party for the middle, and let the fringes twiddle their thumbs. By the way JFK was assinated. Speaking to that, most of us need to read more history!

Posted by: Pragmatite | November 29, 2007 11:56 AM

I'm also from the "post boomer" generation like Birdie, but I'm not so certain that dismissing Boomer's cold-war experience is such a good idea. It scares me that current college seniors are the last grade which could possibly remember the Berlin wall falling. I'm sure I'm going to get flamed for this, but I wonder if some of the current cynicism towards Middle East peace among the younger generation is because the younger generation doesn't have the vivid memories of the Soviet Union falling, and the unification of Germany. If east and west Germany managed to overcome their differences, the same thing can be done elsewhere. It'll take work and patience, but the current cynicism doesn't leave any room for patience.

Posted by: Gelf | November 29, 2007 1:40 PM

No really JFK was assasinated! Duh. Moron.

Posted by: Anonymous | November 30, 2007 8:44 AM

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