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Jewish World Review Nov. 10, 2003 / 15 Mar-Cheshvan, 5764

Michael Barone

Michael Barone
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Harshness and vitriol |
Republicans have taken to complaining that Democrats are attacking George W. Bush with a harshness and vitriol seldom seen in presidential races. Bush is a "miserable failure," says Dick Gephardt; he is treating Iraq like "a toy he has won," says John Edwards--and these are two of the more moderate Democratic candidates. Democrats reply, with some justice, that Republicans attacked Bill Clinton with a harshness and vitriol seldom seen in presidential politics. The level of Bush hatred and Clinton hatred makes many of us uncomfortable, even some of us who have harsh feelings toward one of them.

Why this increased harshness? My explanation: It is a baby boom thing. What we are seeing is a civil war between the two halves of the baby boom, the liberal half that basked in national publicity in the late 1960s and the conservative half that smoldered in resentment for many years until its more recent rise to prominence. The first example of such harshness in national politics came in October 1992 in the vice presidential debate between Dan Quayle and Al Gore, the first two baby boomers to run against each other. This was a rock 'em, sock 'em debate--a sharp contrast with the careful, deferential tone that baby boomer Bill Clinton employed toward GI-generation George H. W. Bush.

Class of '64. Bill Clinton and George W. Bush were both born in 1946, the year generally taken as the beginning of the baby boom. They both graduated from high school in 1964, graduates of the class that recorded the peak SAT scores in history; Hillary Rodham Clinton, Gore, and Quayle graduated a year later. When they were in college, these young people were widely hailed as as the most talented young people in history: In 1969 Life magazine gave rapturous coverage of Hillary Rodham Clinton's commencement speech at Wellesley. The liberal boomers thought it was time they took things over; they played key roles in the Eugene McCarthy and George McGovern campaigns in 1972 and the Richard Nixon impeachment process in 1974.

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Bill Clinton in 1992 and George W. Bush in 2000 both conducted consensus-minded campaigns, but both soon came to be hated by large numbers of voters. Character played a part. Both men have personal traits that the other half of the baby boom generation loathes: Clinton's smooth articulateness and ethical slipperiness, Bush's mangled syntax and moral certainty. The hatred was ratcheted up in the 2000 Florida controversy, in which both sides for tactical reasons made arguments congruent with their own half of the baby boom's deeply held moral attitudes. The Gore campaign argued, The rules are unfair; change the rules. The Bush campaign argued, It's unfair to change the rules in the middle of the game; enforce the rules. It was inevitable that whichever side lost would deeply resent the result--and hate the winner.

Boomer liberals are liberation-minded on cultural issues and conciliation-minded on foreign policy. Just as they favored propitiating campus rioters by granting many of their demands in the 1960s, so they favor mollifying terrorists by conceding some of theirs, as Bill Clinton tried to do in Northern Ireland and Israel. Boomer conservatives are tradition-minded on cultural issues and confrontation-minded on foreign policy. They smoldered when campus rioters extracted demands from college presidents, and today they favor confronting terrorists militarily, asserting the fight is between good and evil.

Of course not all Americans are baby boomers; there are fewer of them every day. But the large majority of voters, in nearly equal numbers, support with nearly religious fervor the two parties led by members of the high school class of 1964. Holding the balance may be a new generation of voters that eschews both cultural traditionalism and the liberal pieties of politically correct campuses and has believed since 9/11 that we are under attack and must respond: In a recent Harvard Institute of Politics survey, 61 percent of college students rated Bush positively, and a new Pew Center poll found more generation X-ers are Republicans than Democrats. In the 1990s, the winner in the baby boomers' civil war seemed to be Bill Clinton. Now the winner seems to be George W. Bush.

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JWR contributor Michael Barone is a columnist at U.S. News & World Report and the author of, most recently, "The New Americans." He also edits the biennial "Almanac of American Politics". Send your comments to him by clicking here.


©2002, Michael Barone