Democrats’ magic num­ber

Sunday Star - - OPINION - COKIE & STEVEN ROBERTS New York Times Steve and Cokie Roberts may be con­tacted by email at steve­[email protected] © 2019 STEVEN AND COKIE ROBERTS DIS­TRIB­UTED BY AN­DREWS MCMEEL SYN­DI­CA­TION FOR UFS

As the new year turns and Democrats fo­cus on can­di­dates to op­pose Pres­i­dent Trump in 2020, there’s one num­ber they should keep in mind: 47.

Here’s why. Since the end of World War II, Democrats have elected only four pres­i­dents who did not hold the of­fice al­ready: John F. Kennedy in 1960, Jimmy Carter in 1976, Bill Clin­ton in 1992 and Barack Obama in 2008.

Those four suc­cess­ful Democrats share many traits, but one of the most strik­ing is their age on the day they were elected. They range from Kennedy, 43, to Carter, 52, but their av­er­age was — yes —

47. In fact, that was Obama’s ex­act age when he de­feated 72-year-old John Mc­Cain.

Of course, age is a very rough met­ric, but look­ing at the emerg­ing field of Demo­cratic as­pi­rants, one im­pres­sion is un­mis­tak­able. The po­ten­tial can­di­date who best fits the pro­file of Demo­cratic win­ners is Beto O’Rourke, the three-time con­gress­man from El Paso, Texas, who nar­rowly lost a Se­nate race in Novem­ber. On Elec­tion Day 2020, he will be 48.

It’s still 14 months be­fore the Iowa cau­cuses, so polls are min­i­mally in­struc­tive. But it’s worth not­ing that the first sur­vey of po­ten­tial cau­cus­go­ers put O’Rourke in third place be­hind two much bet­ter-known (and much older) pos­si­bil­i­ties: for­mer vice pres­i­dent Joe Bi­den, who will be al­most 78 in Novem­ber

2020, and Sen. Bernie San­ders, who will be

79. Fourth-place Sen. El­iz­a­beth War­ren, who has an­nounced an of­fi­cial ex­ploratory com­mit­tee, will be 71.

A closer look at the four vic­to­ri­ous post-war Democrats shows that their age was re­ally a sym­bol for a much larger is­sue. Their youth helped shape their nar­ra­tives, the sto­ries they told vot­ers about their past ex­pe­ri­ences and their plans for the fu­ture. In all four cases, those fu­ture pres­i­dents cap­tured some­thing pro­foundly im­por­tant about Amer­ica, about our eter­nal search for some­thing new and fresh and dif­fer­ent. They em­bod­ied per­haps the best slo­gan in our en­tire po­lit­i­cal his­tor y: “It’s Time for a Change!” (So did Trump, even though he was 70 in 2016.)

Kennedy spear­headed the wave of re­turn­ing World War II vet­er­ans who en­tered pol­i­tics and as­sumed the lead­er­ship of the coun­try. The words in his in­au­gu­ral ad­dress — “A torch has been passed to a new gen­er­a­tion of Amer­i­cans” — stand as the quin­tes­sen­tial ex­pres­sion of the na­tion’s em­brace of youth­ful en­ergy and op­ti­mism.

Carter was not a har­bin­ger of a new gen­er­a­tion, but as a naval of­fi­cer-turned-peanut farmer, and then as a gover­nor who had never served in the capi­tol, he rep­re­sented a clean break from the “swamp” of postWater­gate Wash­ing­ton. His bril­liant slo­gan — “I will never lie to you” — echoed Kennedy’s prom­ise of a new na­tional be­gin­ning, a clean start.

Clin­ton was the first baby boomer pres­i­dent who talked about “build­ing a bridge to the 21st cen­tury” and played on the name of his home­town in Arkansas when he told the Demo­cratic con­ven­tion in 1992, “I still be­lieve in a place called Hope.” He re­flected the bright line of op­ti­mism that con­nects suc­cess­ful can­di­dates when he picked a cam­paign theme song with the in­sis­tent re­frain, “Don’t Stop Think­ing About To­mor­row.”

Thir­teen years be­fore he was elected pres­i­dent, Barack Obama pub­lished a best­selling mem­oir, “Dreams From My Fa­ther,” which told a new ver­sion of an old Amer­i­can story: a bira­cial child over­com­ing ad­ver­sity and achiev­ing suc­cess through his own merit and mo­ti­va­tion. The book fore­shad­owed his time­less cam­paign theme of “Hope and Change,” two of the most res­o­nant words in the Amer­i­can po­lit­i­cal lex­i­con.

Obama has met with O’Rourke since the elec­tion, and in an in­ter­view with his close ad­viser David Ax­el­rod, the for­mer pres­i­dent praised the de­feated con­gress­man as an “im­pres­sive young man who ran a ter­rific race in Texas.”

Obama even drew par­al­lels be­tween him­self and O’Rourke. He won in 2008, Obama told Ax­el­rod, be­cause “peo­ple had a sense that I said what I meant,” and he dis­cerned the same at­tempt to level with vot­ers in the Texan’s failed cam­paign: “What I liked most about his race was that it didn’t feel con­stantly poll-tested.”

Two po­lit­i­cal writ­ers see an­other par­al­lel be­tween the two men. “Like Mr. Obama as he en­tered the 2008 cam­paign,” wrote Matt Fle­gen­heimer and Jonathan Mar­tin, “Mr. O’Rourke can be dif­fi­cult to place on an ide­o­log­i­cal spec­trum, al­low­ing sup­port­ers to project their own pol­i­tics onto a mes­sag­ing palette of na­tional unity and com­mon ground.”

This is all ver y pre­ma­ture. O’Rourke might not even run for pres­i­dent. But if he does, re­mem­ber the magic num­ber is 47.

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