Repub­li­cans must ap­peal to young vot­ers

The Washington Times Weekly - - Commentary - MICHAEL BARONE

Ron­ald Rea­gan in the 1980s at­tracted young vot­ers to his party. Bill Clin­ton in the 1990s did the same. But in this decade, Ge­orge W. Bush has con­spic­u­ously failed at the im­por­tant task of cap­tur­ing the youth vote. Rather to the con­trary. Vot­ers un­der 30 were the age group least likely to sup­port Mr. Bush in 2000 or 2004. They were the age group least likely to sup­port Repub­li­cans when they had a good year in 2002 and when they had a bad year in 2006.

The weak­ness of Repub­li­cans among young vot­ers is one rea­son — and, you could ar­gue, the main de­mo­graphic rea­son — that Democrats go into the 2008 cam­paign as the party more vot­ers would like to see win. Demo­cratic can­di­dates do not al­ways run ahead of Repub­li­cans — Rudy Gi­u­liani has been run­ning ahead of Hil­lary Clin­ton in most polls. But if the Repub­li­cans are to re­gain the nar­rowly held ma­jor­ity sta­tus they en­joyed for 10 years (they got more votes than Democrats in the six House elec­tions from 1994 to 2004), they are go­ing to have to run bet­ter among the young. Among other rea­sons: They are go­ing to go on vot­ing for a lot longer than the rest of us.

Mr. Bush’s fail­ure to win over young vot­ers was not for lack of try­ing. His con­vic­tion, and Karl Rove’s, was that his pro­posal for chang­ing So­cial Se­cu­rity would surely ap­peal to them. Log­i­cally, it should have — be­cause those in their 20s to­day have the most to gain from re­form. In their re­port last month, the So­cial Se­cu­rity trustees told us that So­cial Se­cu­rity costs will ex­ceed rev­enues by 2017.

So just 10 years from now, Congress will have to start dip­ping into other gov­ern­ment rev­enues just to pay off So­cial Se­cu­rity ben­e­fi­cia­ries. By 2041, when to­day’s 21-year-old voter will be 55, So­cial Se­cu­rity will fi­nance only 75 per­cent of ben­e­fits. The gov­ern­ment will have to raise taxes, bor­row more or cut other fed­eral spend­ing pro­grams.

Chang­ing the sys­tem to al­low in­di­vid­u­als to have per­sonal in­vest­ment ac­counts could avoid this crunch. But when Mr. Bush’s call for do­ing that was op­posed by Democrats, the re­sponse of young vot­ers seemed to be, “What­ever.”

My sense when I look at what young vot­ers tell poll­sters is that they as­sume that ev­ery­thing is go­ing to be just fine if things roll along pretty much as they are. They have grown up in an era, last­ing nearly 25 years now, when we’ve had low in­fla­tion cou­pled with eco­nomic growth 95 per­cent of the time. They may grouse about gas prices or pay­ing off col­lege loans, but they’re able to get jobs that mostly pay pretty well and of­ten are more in­ter­est­ing and less back­break­ing than the vaunted fac­tory jobs of the past.

They have grown up in an era when per­sonal choices that were stig­ma­tized as im­moral not so long ago are ac­cepted and even re­spected. You can live with your girl­friend or boyfriend be­fore you get mar­ried; you can be gay — no­body is go­ing to give you a very hard time. In fact, young peo­ple are de­lay­ing child­bear­ing un­til mar­riage more than they used to and seem to be di­vorc­ing some­what less of­ten. We’re learn­ing as a coun­try to bal­ance free­dom with re­spon­si­bil­ity.

The one is­sue on which young peo­ple seem dis­sat­is­fied with things as they are is the mil­i­tary con­flict in Iraq — that would be with the ex­cep­tion of most of the young peo­ple who have served there and who are re-en­list­ing at higher than pro­jected rates. The at­ti­tude of those with­out mil­i­tary ties seems to be: If we just get out of Iraq, if we just get rid of Ge­orge Bush, then ev­ery­thing will be all right. We won’t see sui­cide bombers and im­pro- vised ex­plo­sive de­vices on our television screens; we won’t see mass demon­stra­tions by Euro­peans and Mus­lims against us; we won’t have all this con­tro­versy and bit­ter­ness in our par­ti­san pol­i­tics.

To­day’s 21-year-old was 3 when the Ber­lin Wall came down; his or her par­ents were born well af­ter World War II. Un­like peo­ple who lived through the ex­pe­ri­ence of 1914-1918 or 1939-1945, they have no rea­son to draw the con­clu­sion that ev­ery­thing can — and some­times does — go ter­ri­bly wrong.

It is tempt­ing to turn your eyes away from the pos­si­bil­ity that Is­lamist ter­ror­ists could get their hands on nu­clear or chem­i­cal or bi­o­log­i­cal weapons and wield them against us. Just as it is tempt­ing to turn your eyes away from the cer­tainty that cur­rent pro­grams will lead to the state gob­bling up much of the private sec­tor here, as it has done over the past gen­er­a­tion or two in a num­ber of Euro­pean coun­tries, most no­tably France. But as we saw this month, even the com­fort­able French fi­nally voted against that.

Michael Barone is a na­tion­ally syn­di­cated colum­nist.

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