First of two parts (Read Part 2)
"I don't mean to be flip with this," said Mitt Romney during a Q-and-A with students at the University of Chicago last week. "But I don't see how a young American can vote for a Democrat." He cheerfully apologized to anyone who might find such a comment "offensive," but went on to explain why he was in earnest.
The Democratic Party "is focused on providing more and more benefits to my generation, mounting trillion-dollar annual deficits my generation will never pay for," Romney said. While Democrats are perpetrating "the greatest inter-generational transfer of wealth in the history of humankind," Republicans are "consumed with the idea of getting federal spending down and creating economic growth and opportunity so we can balance our budget and stop putting these debts on you."
The government's record-breaking debts "are not frightening to people my age, because we'll be gone," Romney argued, but "they ought to be frightening to death to people your age!" He regretted not doing a better job of getting that message across to younger voters. "You guys ought to be out," Romney insisted, "working like crazy for me and for people like me: conservatives, who want to keep the cost of government down and give you a brighter future."
About one thing Romney is surely correct: Washington's staggering spending binge is entailing a burden of fearsome proportions on the millennial generation -- voters in their late teens and 20s. With the government more than $15.5 trillion in debt and continuing to borrow 40 cents of every dollar it spends, Generation Y is in for a prolonged economic beating. The national debt now exceeds the entire annual output of the US economy. Millennials will be paying for it through higher taxes, slower growth, reduced public services, fewer jobs, lower incomes, and a more uncertain future than their parents or grandparents confronted.
But that debt wasn't piled up without plenty of Republican help. During George W. Bush's presidency, annual federal spending skyrocketed from $1.8 trillion to $3.4 trillion, and $4.9 trillion was added to the national debt. Bush left the White House, in fact, as the biggest spender since LBJ. Granted, the profligacy of Barack Obama has outstripped even Bush's bacchanal: CBS reports that Obama has added more to the national debt in just three years and two months than Bush did in his entire eight years. Still, younger voters can hardly be blamed if they haven't noticed that Republicans are "consumed with the idea of getting federal spending down."
In any case, even persuasive economic arguments don't always sway voters. Romney's lament that twentysomethings aren't "working like crazy" for Republicans like him mirrors the frustration of liberals like Thomas Frank, whose best-selling "What's the Matter With Kansas?" made the case that heartland Americans hurt their own interests by not supporting Democrats. It takes more to win voters' loyalty than just appealing to their pocketbooks. Romney may be right about millennials' economic interests, but so far they've been voting like lockstep Democrats. They went two-to-one for Obama over John McCain, and backed John Kerry over Bush in 2004. Their enchantment with Obama may have fallen off -- according to the Pew Research Center, just 49 percent of young voters approve the president's job performance, a sharp drop since 2009 -- but they are still more likely than any other age group to describe themselves as Democrats.
Young Republicans at a McCain-Palin rally in Hershey, Pa., during the 2008 presidential campaign. But voters under 30 broke for Obama by a 2-to-1 margin.
It is common for voters to lean leftward when young and incline to the right with age. In a major report on "The Generation Gap and the 2012 Election," Pew notes that members of the "Silent Generation" -- those born before 1945 -- were once one of the most Democratic cohorts, but today are the most Republican. Baby Boomers, too, are moving rightward. Of voters born between 1946 and 1964, Pew finds, far more identify themselves as conservative than as liberal: "A majority of Boomers now favors a smaller government that provides fewer services. When they were in their 20s and 30s, Boomers were more supportive of big government."
But while "young = liberal" may be a familiar equation, it isn't chiseled in granite. Indeed, it wasn't all that long ago that the nation's youngest voters solidly backed the most influential conservative in modern American politics. In 1984, voters under 30 supported Ronald Reagan by a whopping 20-point margin. Not until Obama's election 24 years later would young voters so strongly line up behind any presidential candidate.
Romney laments that he's not "connecting with young people across the country." Somehow the Gipper did it, and in spades. What was his magic?
Next: How Reagan wooed the young
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe).
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