Making Republicanism Cool
The GOP is sporting a new look to attract younger voters. It's nice wrapping, but what's inside the package?
TV Guide Friday 10:00 P.M. Miami Vice—The nation's second-in-command (George Bush) teams with Crockett and Tubbs to bust a drug kingpin who mutters cryptic phrases. Glenn Frey sings a song, for no apparent reason.
Seriously. The vice president's staff is trying to wrangle him a cameo appearance on NBC's pastel policier, assuming the writers can dream up "a role that would be proper for a vice-president." You know, something dignified and befitting an office whose august alumni include Richard Nixon, Spiro Agnew, and Henry Wallace. The possibilities!
Rubbing elbows with Don Johnson is heady stuff for a 61-year-old Yalie whose closest brush with cool to date was soliciting the graying Beach Boys' support for his unsuccessful 1980 presidential campaign. But George Bush wants to be your next president, and he's willing to risk hipness in the process. And he's not the only Republican presidential aspirant venturing into uncharted cultural territory.
Consider Bush's most formidable rival for the 1988 GOP nomination, New York congressman Jack Kemp. Or, rather, the immaculately coiffed ex-Buffalo Bill quarterback's press secretary and advisor, John Buckley. The 29-year-old Buckley's pedigree is impeccably Republican. Uncle Bill is editor-in-chief of National Review. Uncle Jim is a newly confirmed District of Columbia Circuit Court judge and the former Conservative-Republican senator from New York.
But young Buckley's salad days were hardly the stuff of College Republicans' reveries. No WIN buttons, no Tricia Nixon crushes. Buckley comes to major-league Republican politics from the world of punk-rock journalism. Today he parries the feeble thrusts of the Washington press corps; five years ago Buckley was touting underground musicians like Zev and Human Switchboard for the late, great punk tabloid, New York Rocker. Sample Buckleyism: "Rush upstairs and omigod there he is: this wild-looking blond guy dressed in boots and orange pants and knee pads and a kerchief, wrestling a metal sheet around the room and making a hell of a ruckus. The deafening crescendo will not abate—it sounds like a white tornado going through one of those well-stocked American kitchens. But it's only Zev." (Cf. Uncle WFB's McCarthy and His Enemies.)
Miami Vicester Bush and punk-Republican Buckley are only the most colorful lieutenants in the Republicans' long reach for majority-party status. A decade ago, in the wake of Watergate, public-opinion polls showed Democrats outnumbering Republicans by as much as 44 percent to 23 percent—nearly 2 to 1, for the math anxious. Today more than a third of adult Americans admit to being Republican, roughly equal to the number of Democratic loyalists. The GOP has the Big Mo, in Bushian argot. Majority-party status appears within reach—if the GOP succeeds in capturing the affections of the baby-boom generation. And therein lies the key to understanding the cool Republicans.
The popular media have heralded, celebrated, dissected, lampooned, and pandered to the baby boom-yuppie crowd for two years now, sating all but the most voracious trendophiles. (Special mention should be given to Newsweek's December 31, 1984, cover story proclaiming the "Year of the Yuppie," which set a never-to-be-equaled standard for sheer imbecility. Scour flea markets and treat yourself to an issue. You'll never forget it.)
Truth to tell, yuppies—workers under 40 years of age making more than $30,000—are far scarcer than the advertising executives would have you believe. There are, at most, 8 million such creatures, out of a total baby-boom generation population of 75 million (those born between 1946 and '64). Since the franchise remains independent of wealth, the most affluent young Americans are hardly the colossal voting bloc they're rumored to be. "Yuppies were never worth focusing on," remarks Martin Franks, director of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. "There aren't that many of them."
Far more numerous are the "new collar" workers, baby boomers with incomes between $15,000 and $30,000. They're the folks standing proud and tall in the Miller Beer ads while the yuppies frolic for Michelob. Twenty-two million strong, the new collars are the real America. These baby-boom exemplars are described in a recent report prepared for the Joint Economic Committee of Congress: "In 1984, the typical young American family (head age 25–34) consisted of a husband and wife and a single child under age twelve. Less than half owned their own homes. Median pre-tax family income from all earners totalled $25,157." Which income, the authors comment archly, is "hardly enough to buy a BMW."
Nor is the popular stereotype of older baby-boom voters as erstwhile ponytailed Big Chill foes of fascism accurate. The enduring images of politically active youth in the 1960s—levitating the Pentagon or getting their heads busted by Mayor Daley's finest in Chicago—are anomalies. The proportion of college-age Americans who supported the Vietnam War was higher than the national average. More college students joined the right-wing Young Americans for Freedom (slogan: Sock It to the Left) in the 1960s than the leftist Students for a Democratic Society. George Wallace's hell-raising populist 1968 candidacy, featuring as veep candidate General Curtis "Bomb 'em Back to the Stone Age" LeMay, attracted disproportionate support from younger voters. No matter what they tell you, most '60s kids sat the revolution out.
Yet despite all the nonsense surrounding them, the 75 million baby boomers—yuppies, new collars, students, and the great unwashed alike—do share distinct political attitudes, a phenomenon that has not escaped the attention of the nation's more astute political strategists. Pollsters continually find this group, particularly those aged 18–29, exhibiting markedly more liberal attitudes than the general population on social and lifestyle issues such as abortion, the Equal Rights Amendment, and legalizing marijuana.
At the same time, baby-boom voters are more likely to hold "conservative"—that is, free-market and anti-interventionist—economic views. To a greater extent than other age groups, they oppose new government spending programs, high taxes, protectionism, and other unsightly protruberances of the American welfare state.
This unusual conjunction of views—"liberal" on social issues, "conservative" on economic matters—distinguishes what Democratic Party strategist Ralph Whitehead calls "the most deeply individualistic generation in American history." These attitudes strike conventional-wisdom pundits as selfish at best, and contradictory nonsense at worst. A generation of low-tax dope-smokers? Aaargh! The Newsweek article blames it all on a generational tendency to be "unpredictable in their beliefs, even faddish," blithely unaware that opposition to government interference in one's personal and economic life is perfectly consistent. Or perhaps our Revolution in 1776 was simply faddishness writ large?
A far more sophisticated analysis of baby-boom politics appears in William S. Maddox and Stuart A. Lilie's Beyond Liberal and Conservative, a neat little book making the rounds of the political cognoscenti. Professors Maddox and Lilie, utilizing copious survey data compiled by the University of Michigan's Inter-University Consortium for Political and Social Research, aver that "the supposed trend toward conservatism among our youngest generations is more a trend toward libertarianism (support for both economic freedoms and civil liberties) than a trend toward classic conservatism." Maddox and Lilie are seconded by Peter Kim of the J. Walter Thompson advertising agency, which has studied baby-boom attitudes in considerable depth. Kim calls younger voters' political tendencies "a new kind of conservatism. It's more a resurgence of individualism…and a reluctance to accept the cliché liberalism of the 1960s."
This individualism reared its obstreperous little head during the 1984 campaign when younger voters enthusiastically supported septuagenarian Ronald Reagan. The president won 60 percent of their votes, ending two decades of national elections in which the Democrats' strongest support had come from voters under 30. Astonishingly, exit polls showed that more than 35 percent of younger Americans considered themselves Republicans, up from just 14 percent in 1975. And the rhythm is still with 'em. The Washington Post reports that its survey data reveal that "the voters who identify with the Republican Party are significantly younger than the general public, while the Democratic Party contains a disproportionately large share of voters 55 and older."
The conditions in which Mr. Reagan ran were so propitious—peace, relative prosperity, and a transparently abject hack as an opponent—that his strategy may seem irrelevant. The weary, joyless Mondale, a career politician peddling the most banal form of bureaucratic statism, was easy pickings indeed. Nevertheless, the Reagan campaign is significant, for it portends the shape of things to come.
The '84 Republican strategy was simple. Appeal to baby boomers by emphasizing free enterprise and opportunity, particularly in the form of the president's opposition to tax hikes, while glossing over social issues and thundering sententiously on foreign affairs—"A nuclear war can never be won, and must never be fought," etc. School prayer and other issues salient to the religious right were played down, given only the most perfunctory lip service.
Reagan pulled it all off in spectacular style, says '84 deputy campaign director Lee Atwater, because he "successfully convinced baby-boomers that he's tolerant." (Remember that he's yet to disown any of his goofy offspring, an act of tolerance bordering on abdication of parental duties.) The telemaniacal young congressman Newt Gingrich (R–Ga.), founder of the Republicans' raucous Conservative Opportunity Society, captured the primacy of economic issues in the '84 campaign with customary pungency: "The average yuppie worries less about Big Brother kicking in the door to take away Penthouse than about Big Walter persecuting them by taking away their tax money."
Complementing Reagan's opportunity-society themes were the GOP's first, tentative steps in a direction that might charitably be termed hip. To be sure, much of the president's appeal stems from a jaunty, manly confidence that inspires even Mitch Miller fans. "Reagan's role in making Republicanism hip should not be overlooked," cautions Buckley, who points out that for whatever reason kids just like the damn guy.
But Reagan's emergence as teen idol wasn't entirely fortuitous. The 1984 Reagan campaign was the first in modern times in which Republicans unabashedly spoke the language of youth and the pop culture. During the campaign, Reagan aides sat their boss down and made him watch a few rock videos to see what those crazy kids are up to these days. (And don't you wish you were a fly on that wall?) Reagan aides took care to surround the old guy with teen icons from the ineffably cute gymnast Mary Lou Retton to the fey warbler Michael Jackson as the president crossed the country exhorting those half a century younger than he to "go for it."
The apple-cheeked "Nixon's the One" girls who cast such a nerdish pall over Republican rallies of the recent past were consigned to the dustbin of history. In the hip new world of 1984, teams of young Republicans warmed up Reagan crowds with a few choruses of their rollicking "Ghostbusters" parody, "Fritzbusters." Not since Jack Carter played the Lido Room at the Stardust have ribs been tickled with such hilarity.
On the wilder side, Reagan aides attempted, without success, to enlist John Cougar Mellancamp's rock hit "Pink Houses" and Bruce Springsteen's "Born in the USA" as unofficial theme songs. (Can you imagine the Nixon '68 campaign soliciting support from Jim Morrison or Jimi Hendrix?) The singers resisted, no doubt bemused by the presidential entreaties. Neither the sardonic Mellancamp song nor Springsteen's lost-Vietnam-vet elegy is exactly mood music for morning in America. Events unfolded thusly: the president invoked Springsteen's name in a campaign speech anyway, a Reagan aide claimed Ron listens to the Born in the USA album "all the time," Bruce dedicated his autoworker-loses-job-and-kills-a-night-clerk folkie "Johnny 99" to his First Fan, and Mellancamp recorded a great album about the supposed ugliness of the Reagan years.
George and Jack will probably leave Bruce and John alone in '88. There will be new pop stars to coopt. But the wise Republican understands that style carries one only so far. It don't matter how many pairs of Ray-Bans George Bush wears. If he and Kemp fail to tailor their campaign pitches to the under-40 generational zeitgeist—economically conservative, socially liberal—some canny young Democrat will. Bill Bradley, after all, really does listen to Bruce Springsteen.
Republican strategists see economic issues, particularly taxes, as the key to the kingdom, realignment-wise. Buckley asserts that "the baby-boom vote puts as its first and foremost criterion who will make the economy grow." And Kemp is nothing if not a tireless promoter of economic growth through tax reduction. Not that he desires a concomitant decline in state expenditures—"I take a little flak from some conservatives or libertarian people who don't think that we want more revenue" admits Kemp. But "there are important things for the government to be doing, from defending the country to many socially or economically desirable goals."
Bush, meanwhile, has put aside his country-club reservations about "voodoo economics" tax cuts and joined the faith. Dark-horse GOP candidates similarly tout the virtues of lower taxes, from supply-side ex-Delaware governor Pete DuPont to millionaire TV evangelist Pat Robertson. In fact, Robertson is the most fervent would-be tax-cutter of the bunch. He supports an across-the-board 10 percent flat tax, and with his glib tongue and good looks he could do surprisingly well with baby-boom voters in the unlikely event he's willing to play down the snake-handler bit.
The Republicans are on the side of the angels on economic issues, and the Democrats know it. Laments Christopher Matthews, an aide to House Speaker Tip O'Neill, "We Democrats will never win the baby-boomers if we are seen as the party of tax increases."
Far more vexing to GOP candidates seeking support from younger voters are the social issues. It's a near-axiom that in order to win the Republican nomination, a candidate must sacrifice a measure of liberty and tolerance to the Moloch of the New Right. So we are treated to the sorry spectacle of Bush, Kemp, et al. prostrating themselves before the Conservative Political Action Conference and other New Right gatherings, wooing right-wing activists with harshly unlibertarian rhetoric.
New Right chieftain Howard Phillips, for one, sees no alternative for the ambitious Republican. The president of the Conservative Caucus argues that "values voters"—social conservatives—are the cornerstone of a GOP majority. "Without values voters, no Republican is going to win the presidency," he declaims. And if a Bush or a Kemp should ignore or take for granted these values voters? Phillips thinks they'll abandon ship and—assuming the Democrats "are shrewd enough to camouflage their Marxism"—support a putatively conservative candidate like "a Chuck Robb [former Virginia governor and LBJ son-in-law] or a Lee Iacocca."
The early jockeying for position within the party suggests that Phillips's assessment isn't far off. George Bush's toadying to the New Right has been so egregious that Tory columnist George Will charged Bush with emitting "a thin tinny 'arf'—the sound of a lapdog." In the rush to propitiate values voters, the Republicans seem to be forgetting the economically conservative, socially liberal baby boomers they so assiduously courted two years ago.
But Lee Atwater, now a $100,000-a-year top consultant to Bush's embryonic '88 campaign, insists they've not been forgotten. He sees "conservative libertarians" as the key element of a winning GOP coalition in 1988 that would also include garden-variety conservatives and "conservative populists"—Phillips's kind of folks. Atwater urges the employment of "anti–big institution"—big business, big labor, big government—themes as the glue to hold this agglomeration of voters together. Since the three groups are united, at some level, in opposition to increased regulation of the economy, there will be much rhapsodizing about the wonders of the free market. The trick is going to be to throw the populists and conservatives a few social-issue bones while winking tolerant at the libertarians to keep them in the fold. "The concept of tolerance," Atwater emphasizes, "is very important" to baby-boom voters. And an image of tolerance is very important to he who seeks their votes.
Atwater's interest in courting libertarian-leaning voters is well-grounded. Maddox and Lilie, in assaying the ideological composition of the Republican Party, found that libertarians constitute 29 percent of the party, while 27 percent are conservative, 18 percent populist (interventionist on social and economic issues), 13 percent liberal, and the remainder unclassifiable. Thus a majority of rank-and-file Republicans could conceivably bring themselves to vote for a candidate who combines faith in the free market with cautious support for certain civil liberties. Indeed, the Maddox and Lilie study suggests that a conservative Republican willing to ignore the New Right huffing and puffing might do better to throw in his lot with the libertarian wing of the party rather than with the populists—and wouldn't that occasion a free-for-all?
A final, potentially nettlesome issue for the Republicans in '88 is foreign policy. From the '30s to the early '50s, various Western and Midwestern Republicans—contemptuously dismissed as "isolationists" by the folks who brought you Yalta, Korea, and the American Century—offered prescient and principled criticisms of American prewar and Cold War foreign policy. Men like Senators Robert Taft and Kenneth Wherry and Representative Howard Buffett, among others, warned Americans that embarking on a global crusade against communism would inevitably result in a centralized economy at home and the curtailment of civil liberties. (The presidency of Lyndon B. Johnson stands as a monument to the old isolationists' powers of prophecy.)
Alas, the isolationist impulse has all but disappeared from the GOP leadership. Republican Party potentates, with the possible exception of Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger, have adopted wholesale the America-as-world-policeman assumptions of the postwar Democrats. The 30 percent or so of the GOP rank-and-file who the opinion polls tell us retain a Taft-like opposition to foreign intervention are a source of embarrassment to be gently ignored, much as a bumpkin relative who stumbles upon his debutante cousin's coming-out party. After all, asserts rising star congressman Vin Weber (R–Minn.), "A majority party cannot be isolationist."
It is the bumptious young Republicans like Kemp, Weber, and Gingrich who are the most vocal about their party's commitment to interventionism. Kemp, fearful of being tagged an ignoramus on foreign policy matters, has taken the rhetorical lead in the House of Representatives in securing US aid for Jonas Savimbi's UNITA rebels in Angola. He is similarly vocal about sending taxpayers' money to support the contras in Nicaragua. Gingrich boasts that the new Republican role model is Teddy Roosevelt—a life-lover, to be sure, but also America's foremost apostle of imperialism.
He's a role model they may want to reconsider. An aggressive, interventionist foreign policy of the sort the Republicans are offering is likely to repel the baby-boom voters the GOP needs to attain majority-party status. Even at the height of President Reagan's popularity with young voters, a full 63 percent disapproved of his handling of defense matters and agreed that the president had brought the nation closer to war.
And contrary to the teens-as-Rambos nonsense being bruited about by sociologists, Ellen Goodman, and other sanctimonious nuisances, a "new militarism" has not infected the young. (Memo to culture buffs: Rambo's enemies were the Vietnamese and US governments; the kids in Red Dawn fought the commies because "we live here" in a world war for which the superpowers were equally culpable; Bruce Springsteen is proud to be born in the USA despite its government, not because of it; Rocky, after absorbing several thousand blows to the head, issues a plea for detente and peace, love, and understanding.) The Gallup poll even reveals that Americans under 30 trust the military less than those of any other age group—including the 30-to-49-year-olds who came of age during the '60s.
Nevertheless, Kemp, Bush, & Co. seem disinclined to reexamine regnant interventionist assumptions. If anything, Kemp and the New Right find the Reagan administration too timorous in its use of force—Phillips demands nothing less than a worldwide "victory over communism," pouring God knows how many dollars and young boys' lives down foreign ratholes. Nor are chief strategists Buckley and Atwater overly concerned about their party's globalist drift. Buckley doubts it's a vote-loser—"on foreign policy, baby boomers are least monolithic," he claims.
Atwater is less certain. He concedes that "isolationism is a long tradition," still popular among the conservative-leaning libertarians and populists the GOP must attract. But he thinks the Monroe Doctrine's warning to Old World powers against interference in this hemisphere remains popular, as evidenced by the overwhelming support the US invasion of Grenada won from all age groups. "Our hemisphere is sacred," asserts Atwater. Perhaps, though a consistent Monroe Doctrinaire would also demand that the United States drop out of NATO, which none of the GOP aspirants has yet done or will do barring global calamity or a sudden attack of good sense.
Few of us are so naive as to expect good sense from men crafty enough to succeed at national politics. Do expect, however, to be bombarded over the next two years with lots of slick agitprop, set to a pulsating rock beat, pumping Republicans as the party of growth and opportunity, "The whole Republican philosophy is based on the concept of individualism," insists Atwater. And even if he's exaggerating just a bit, top GOP strategists really are trying to get the measure of the most individualistic generation in a hell of a long time. Miami Vice is a big step up from Miami Beach, where 14 years ago the hippest personage at a Republican Convention was Sammy Davis, Jr. But don't start looking for Human Switchboard to entertain at party gatherings quite yet. Though if they did, laughs Buckley, "the future would be a lot brighter for Republicanism."
Bill Kauffman is assistant editor of REASON.