When he's not playing nice, Barack Obama likes to turn Bill Clinton's words against Hillary. He does it on the experience question by quoting Clinton's 1992 gibe against President George H.W. Bush that "real world" experience beats long years in Washington. And last week Obama began twisting the signature line of Clinton's 1996 re-election campaign by suggesting that the Clintons want to "build a bridge back to the 20th century."
The Democratic primary contest is not, as Obama claims, a battle between the future and the past. That's a gross oversimplification. But a generational struggle is nonetheless underway. It's not just that Obama has inspired young voters, who prefer him in large numbers. He also represents a new generation of leadership, even though technically he's part of the same generation as Hillary, the baby boomers. Here's where it gets a bit complicated. This tussle pits an Early Boomer vs. a Late Boomer, and the two cohorts have little in common.
Analyzing politics generationally is hazardous. Large numbers of voters and politicians defy the easy categories assigned to them. In the case of boomers—those born between 1946 and 1964—the whole frame is wrong. It's based on birthrates, not common cultural and political affinities. Many quintessential boomer figures like Jimi Hendrix (born 1942) and Abbie Hoffman (born 1936) weren't actually in the demographic at all.
Worse, the Early Boomer sensibility gets all the attention. Five decades of newsmagazine boomer cover stories have focused on the (often narcissistic) preoccupations of the Woodstock generation as it ages. But those boomers born after 1955, now mostly in their 40s, missed Woodstock (unless a few snuck in as 14-year-olds). Our coming-of-age decade was the 1970s, not the 1960s. Our presidents were Carter and Reagan, not JFK, LBJ and Nixon. Our calling card was irony, not rebellion.
So it's no surprise that Hillary Clinton (born 1947) would have a different generational identity from Barack Obama (born 1961). Late Boomers, dubbed "Generation Jones" by activist Jonathan Pontell (because of in-between anonymity and lots of Joneses in popular '70s songs), make up the largest share of the voter pie—26 percent. Despite our size (the peak of the baby boom was 1957, the year I was born), we spent years feeling like generational stepchildren. It was as if we arrived late at the '60s party, after everything turned bitter. But if we weren't convincing flower children (or anti-hippies, like George W. Bush), we weren't part of Generation X either. The Gen-Xers were too cynical. Instead we became the perennial swing voters, with residual '60s idealism mixed with the pragmatism and materialism of the '80s. Even as demographers concluded that generations are really 10 to 15 years, not 20, no one represented us.
It's an exaggeration to say that Obama now does, but at least he understands the argument. In late 2004, I interviewed the newly elected senator for what would become the first newsmagazine cover story about him or any Late Boomer politician. What I remember most from that day was his insistence that we stop "re-litigating the 1960s." Nowadays he's dropped that lawyer talk, but not the idea. Well before he challenged the Clintons, Obama rejected what he called "the same old arguments" between left and right. His campaign is about "turning the page," not just from BushClintonBushClinton, but from the cultural contentiousness of those years.
To their credit, the Clintons have also long resisted what they call "false choices" in politics (e.g., you're either pro-labor or pro-business) in favor of a more practical "Third Way." Even the much-maligned tactic of "triangulation" was an effort to rise above the partisan clatter. But the Clintons simply cannot transcend those old fights. They cut their teeth on them on the way up and too often embodied them when they took power, even when it wasn't their fault. The reason they are still so loved and hated has little to do with what they did substantively, which was mostly moderate, and lots to do with visceral feelings touched off by the voters' own life experiences.
If Hillary loses, she can rightfully blame not just Obama, her husband, her campaign and herself, but a backlash against the entitlement and excess of her generation. For all the glowing press, it's a generation that has done a good job raising its kids, and not much else.
I've often wondered why some big-time politicians are Velcro while others, like Ronald Reagan, wear coats of Teflon. One explanation may lie in the struggles of the 1960s. Those who grew up then, from the Clintons and Al Gore to Newt Gingrich and Bush, are almost all Velcro. Everything sticks to them. Anyone who pre-dates or post-dates those polarizing cultural arguments has a decent shot at acquiring some Teflon.
Obama's Teflon comes not just from his race, which forces his critics to risk charges of racism when they attack him, but from his un-'60s (as opposed to anti-'60s) profile. His "Joshua Generation," as he calls it in a civil-rights and Biblical context, is descended from the founding activists and still committed to their goals, but not trapped in the tumult of their times. That generates energy for the march forward into the twilight of the boom.