2012-08-13 07:35:00

Could Romney-Ryan Split the Boomer Vote? What Obama Needs to Do

Could Mitt Romney’s VP choice of Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan—praised widely as the smarter, more pragmatic radical conservative with a plan—split the boomer-generation vote in the GOP’s favor?

After all, the Pew Center's generational analysis shows a somewhat more conservative swing among younger boomers, who hit their formative political years in the Reagan era. In a vice-tight election, a few electoral votes shaved from any large demographic group might, in theory, swing the Rom-Ryan ticket to Pennsylvania Avenue.

Senior Vote Bigger Than Their Numbers

But the GOP hopefuls shouldn’t count on it. The boomers are not only the biggest generation in American history at 78 million (compared to Ryan’s Gen Xers at 40 million), but they’re more like a generation and a half at 19 years, born from 1946 through 1964.

Who cares? Seniors vote. The over-65 generation, for instance, constitute 13 percent of the U.S. population but, in 2008, 19 percent of the vote, according to the Pew Center.

Still, President Obama will need to work for every vote November 6. For older voters, he’ll have to convincingly distance himself from things like his stated willingness to compromise on entitlement programs in the name of his Grand Bargain with the GOP for some tax increases on the rich.

Evidently, Obama missed that a policy changes like raising the eligibility age for Social Security and Medicare would harm many ethnic elders, aging women and a large number of middle class folks who lost their houses and retirement saving in the Great Recession.

As for boomers, some gerontologists make much of differences between “leading-edge” boomers, now turning 66—the full Social Security retirement age--and their middle-aged counterparts, clocking in 48-57.

Political scientists have long shown that “age cohorts” (groups born in a specific time period) change their partisan leanings depending on who is president when they reach the age of political awareness. Old boomers like me reached our teens in the 1960s of JFK’s youthful Bostonian “vigah” and LBJ’s schizophrenic Great Society and Vietnam chaos. Younger boomers had Nixon’s Watergate and Jimmy Carter’s conservation plan—wear a sweater before raising the thermostat.

So those ‘70s kids tend to be wary of the turmoil surrounding their older siblings, but not as conservative as the Eisenhower-era seniors of today (the so-called Silent Generation mostly in their 70s), who are, in turn, less liberal overall than their parents or older siblings' Depression/WWII Generation presided over by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Elder Vote and Obama

Case in point: Conventional analysis marks that four years ago, seniors were the only age demographic to vote for John McCain. But political scientists on the senior vote note that nobody is getting any younger. Much of the 65-plus age group in 2008 came to political awareness in the Eisenhower years. Measured at 65-plus, John McCain won the senior vote by 53-45 percent in 2008.

The 60-plus voters, though, included more of that 1960s gang. McCain still won, but by a 51-47 percent margin. Obama might have swung that vote his way had his campaign done anything beyond obligatory visits to a Florida nursing home to court the older Democratic vote.

Clearly, the Obama campaign is ready to spike the autumn football in the GOP end zone over Ryan’s budgetary radicalism on Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.

For instance, Ryan budget's promise [http://roadmap.republicans.budget.house.gov] to turn Medicare into a voucher program and privatize Social Security have already promoted the Miami Herald to surmise, “Ryan could be a drag on Romney in Florida.”

But the Democrats are yet to exploit significant weaknesses in the arguments for “entitlement reform” by GOP stalwarts, like former Sen. Alan Simpson and Romney. For example, they keep saying the older generation should not object to changes they propose because seniors won't be affected--it will only start with people 55 or younger today—those supposedly more conservative younger boomers.

The popularity of Social Security and Medicare in particular is not just high among elderly people, but for decades and in multiple recent pools has been clearly shown across all age groups.

Obama’s Toughest Test

One of the toughest tests for the Obama campaign is whether or not the president can sideline enough of his centrism to keep his support from Wall Street Democrats in line while they properly scare the beejeebers out of boomers. Can they energize them with what Ryan's detailed budget planning will do to them (and to Gen X, their children, now hitting 40).

GOP and Democratic centrists, aided and abetted by the supposedly liberal Washington press corps love to tout bipartisan respect for Ryan’s "intellectual" leadership and integrity. Bob Schieffer’s soft interview with the Romney twins on “60 Minutes” Sunday night littered the campaign trail with enough platitudes to feed Jon Stewart’s “Daily Show” with straight lines for months.

Washington may love Ryan’s impression of policy freshness, but he proposes changes too radical for too many GOP voters.

The Tea Party certainly has its sway, but in November it’s not likely to have its day, that is, if Obama doesn’t drop his advantage.

Remember when Newt Gingrich tried to claim more middle ground to distinguish his candidacy by criticizing the Ryan budget plan on “Meet the Press” as “right-wing social engineering”? Never mind that today he’s trumpeting the Romney’s choice of Ryan. A year ago Gingrich declared himself “against a conservative imposing radical change”--and he almost as immediately backpeddled when he was pelted by wet tea-bags of party criticism.

Today, Romney has raised the electoral stakes by diversifying his electoral portfolio with his Tea Party cred—but it’s a Tea Party that remains politically powerful as its popularity in GOP ranks has waned.

The Obama campaign will certainly play off of Ryan’s radicalism—likely using it to define Romney as undefined in his flip-flopping and tea-pandering--raising the question of who will be in charge in a Rom-Ryan White House?

But also, another responsibility for countering the radical right’s rise to the White House must fall on the spirit, if not the actual leadership (or un-leadership) of the Occupy movement.

Occupy vs. The GOP’s “Fiscal Cliff”

Romney’s advantage in the choice of Ryan, once again sets the onus of national discussion on pulling the federal budget back from the “fiscal cliff"-- the national debt and the “entitlement” night monsters that the right and Wall Street want Americans to imagine lurk under our national bed.

But less than a year ago, an unaffiliated, scruffy lot of young people changed the American dialogue to what you might call the human cliff’s edge for so many Americans pushed being over the side by debilitating inequality.

I have little faith that Obama and his West Wing insiders can alter the campaign’s debt-debate framing, at least not alone, in Washington’s atmosphere of parsing polls, messaging and chronic strategizing. But he could gain ground with the huge boomer generation--and young adults, again, too.

Key to motivating both older and younger boomers would be the combination of a well-documented scare using Ryan’s own words, and presenting a genuine alternative that returns to traditional Democratic protection of every family’s future, beginning with Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, as in, “There but for fortune go any of us.”

Obama’s practice of lowering expectations, though, suggest he will continue to muddle around the angles that have made the center-to-left side of America almost universally describe his performance as “disappointing.” Right now the media refrain is that most voters are settled on their choices, and the Dems and GOP shouldn’t be faulted for catering, once again, to Joe and Jane Sixpack in the swing-state burbs and ex-urbs.

Can Obama re-energized his base against the Rom-Ryan choice? Can he get real about life security and fairness for all? Yeah, sure, “Jobs, jobs, jobs.” But what about some genuine words and firm plans to rekindle—dare I say it—“Hope.” That won’t be ease, but he can’t reach voters mired in more questionable budgetary minutia. If Obama wants a second term, he needs to reach but where they live, and fighting to strengthen, not bargain away Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid would be a good place to start.

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