When Bill Clinton sought and won, the Democratic Party nomination for President in 1992, it marked a generational shift for the Democratic Party. Mr. Clinton was the first baby boomer to be nominated by either party and became the first President of the U.S. who was born after World War II. Now, more than two decades after Mr. Clinton was elected, his generation still dominates the Democratic Party; and it is beginning to become an issue, albeit an unspoken one. That assertion is not entirely fair. Two of the most influential Democrats in Washington, Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi, were born before the U.S. entered into World War II and are thus from the generation before the baby boomers.
Mr. Reid and Ms. Pelosi will both continue leading the Democrats in the Senate and House respectively in 2015. It is also widely expected that Hillary Clinton, a baby boomer like her husband, will be the Democratic nominee in 2016. While some supporters of Ms. Clinton are concerned that her age–she turned 67 a few months ago–could be used against her by opponents, it is worth noting that in the context of the leadership of her party, she is on the young side.
President Obama, at 53, is a full half generation younger than the Clintons, but even he can hardly be described as youthful anymore. Mr. Obama is older than several likely Republican candidates for President in 2016 including Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Chris Christie, Rand Paul and Bobby Jindal. The Democrats have long sought to portray themselves as the party that attracts young voters, but this may be increasingly difficult for a party whose younger leaders were born before the Beatles first came to the U.S.
It is not the case that only young candidates can attract young voters, or that older candidates cannot resonate with younger voters, but generational issues cannot be ignored either. This is especially apparent with regards to Hillary Clinton. For voters, particularly women, of Ms. Clinton’s generation, the possibility of electing a woman as President is a groundbreaking event that would change politics forever. For younger voters, regardless of gender, the narrative of yet another white person with a familiar name from a privileged background who attended elite schools before working as a corporate lawyer and then spending two decades as a Washington insider, becoming President is not nearly as groundbreaking. It is the career path younger voters have seen many times before from politicians a generation or two older than them. These are two sides of the same Hillary Clinton coin, but perspective in this case is substantially defined by generation.
Generational concerns in the Democratic Party are not limited to Ms. Clinton. There are many issues facing voters born after 1980 that should be natural issues for Democrats. These include the cost and crushing debt associated with getting a higher education, technology related issues including net neutrality but also improving the internet infrastructure to keep the U.S. competitive, draconian criminal penalties for drug use and even climate change. The leaders of the Democratic Party, however, rarely place any emphasis on these issues, and are even less frequently able to discuss them fluent and naturally. Instead the leaders of the Democratic Party generally choose to focus on the same battery of economic and social issues that the baby boomer generation has been discussing for several decades.
The recent defeat for the Democratic Party was particularly devastating because it prevented the next generation of leaders from emerging. This means that the gap between the generation whose votes the Democrats need in order to win elections and the generation that is running for office or wielding power on behalf of the party in Washington will continue to grow. As that gap widens differences in perceptions and priorities will likely to continue to grow, thus limiting the Democratic Party’s ability to take advantage of the demographic shifts in race and ethnicity that should be a major boon to them.
Lincoln Mitchell is the national political correspondent for the Observer. Follow him on Twitter @LincolnMitchell.