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July 01, 2013 10:06 AM Young Fogies Versus Old Progressives

By Ed Kilgore

One of the overriding realities of contemporary American politics is the unusual alignment of the two parties’ electorates with racial/ethnic and generational fault lines since 2008. Because the two “tribes” happen to coincide with the voter categories that do and don’t tend to participate in midterm elections, this is a big challenge for Democrats going into 2014. How can they bring back the coalition that gave them a midterm landslide in 2006, winning an actual majority of voters over 60, to the one that lost that same demographic by 16 percent in 2010? Since there was an equally large adverse swing between 2006 and 2010 among voters (especially white voters) aged 45-60, and voters over 45 made up two-thirds of the electorate in 2010, you can make the case that at least a modest revival of Democratic strength among older voters is a short-term essential. This is, indeed, why some Democratic strategists think it is so essential to defend Social Security and Medicare precisely as they are currently configured with great intensity.

Turning the equation around, it’s equally important to Republicans that they maintain their grip on the old folks. Their efforts to do so have involved (1) an impressively hypocritical posture on Medicare and Social Security wherein retirees and near-retirees would be literally “grandfathered” from structural “reforms” that cut benefits; and (2) an effort to convince retirees that Obamacare benefits are paid for by Medicare cuts—and worse yet, by policies aimed at rationing health care for the elderly (“death panels”). Putting these visceral, tangible appeals together with a conservative cultural pitch is pretty effective strategy for older white people.

How could Republicans blow this advantage? Well, they could try this (per a report from Jonathan Martin at the New York Times):

Stuart Stevens, the top strategist for Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign, declared to an audience of reporters at a breakfast last month that electing Hillary Rodham Clinton would be like going back in time. “She’s been around since the ’70s,” he said.
At a conservative conference earlier in the year, Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader, ridiculed the 2016 Democratic field as “a rerun of ‘The Golden Girls,’ ” referring to Mrs. Clinton and Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., who is 70.
And Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin, seizing on the Fleetwood Mac song that became a Clinton family anthem, quipped to an audience in Washington, “If you want to keep thinking about tomorrow, maybe it’s time to put somebody new in.”
The 2016 election may be far off, but one theme is becoming clear: Republican strategists and presidential hopefuls, in ways subtle and overt, are eager to focus a spotlight on Mrs. Clinton’s age. The former secretary of state will be 69 by the next presidential election, a generation removed from most of the possible Republican candidates.

According to Martin’s account, Republicans think they can held reduce their own mirror disadvantage among younger voters by contrasting aging Democratic leaders with their young and allegedly hip set of emerging leaders: you know, Marco Rubio with his hip-hop, Rand Paul with his hostility to waging wars on Muslims or potheads; Paul Ryan with his air of the wonder-boy gym rat.

If this does indeed become a party-wide Republican theme, it will be a good test of style versus substance. Can candidates whose policy agenda is largely a revolt against the last half of the twentieth century come across as the wave of the future? Is it possible to unravel a youth-driven progressive coalition by mocking the alleged senescence of its leaders? And is this a risky business for a party that’s never more than a major gaffe away from being suspected of conspiring to get rid of the New Deal and Great Society programs altogether?

I dunno, but if granny-bashing is indeed the early pre-‘16 strategy for the GOP, it will be interesting to see if they pay any price for it in 2014, when old folks will walk tall.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

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