Boomers Still Seeking A Candidate

Posted: January 08, 1988

After the 1984 election, it became a cliche among political experts to say that baby boomers - Americans who are now 23 to 41 years old - were conservative on economic issues and liberal on social issues. Thus both parties would face the challenge of appealing to a large group of voters who were not receptive to the traditional liberalism of the Democrats or the conservatism of the Republicans.

More recently, a revisionist view has arisen. Many political observers say that the boomers aren't so different after all and that they don't seem to be voting as a bloc or gravitating to a particular candidate. Sen Joseph R. Biden Jr., who made the most overt generational pitch, had little to show for it even before his sudden departure from the Democratic presidential race.

But perhaps the boomers never particularly wanted a president close to their own age or one who issued a clarion call to their generation. Rather, they may be seeking a candidate who offers a unique combination of issues.

And the strategy of combining a commitment to free markets and lower taxes with a concern for civil liberties and peace has not failed - it hasn't been tried.

Independent John Anderson first emerged in the 1980 campaign with that kind of platform, and it made him the most successful third-party candidate in recent history, with 25 percent in some polls. But then he began moving to more orthodox liberal positions, and his support dropped like a rock. In 1984 Gary Hart attracted a lot of baby-boomer support in the Democratic primaries with a pitch that seemed to attack Mondale from the right on economics and

from the left on cultural issues. In 1986 California Senate candidate Ed Zschau won the primary with just this sort of approach, but in the fall he incongruously switched to an anti-drug campaign and failed to pick up the young voters he had hoped to win from Democrat Alan Cranston. The fiscally conservative, socially liberal strategy still awaits a champion.

This year, all the Democratic candidates with the exception of Hart - whose born-again candidacy seems likely to be quixotic - appear firmly committed to a warmed-over Mondaleism - complete with tax increases, new spending programs and protectionism - that appeals to union leaders and Iowa caucus activists but not to fiscally conservative baby boomers.

Republican candidates face a mirror image of the Democrats' problems. To appeal to Republican primary voters, all the presidential candidates are stressing their opposition to abortion, their support for Judge Robert H. Bork and "traditional values," and their commitment to an expensive and extensive U.S. military.

Dark horse candidate Pete du Pont of Delaware has made the most direct appeal to baby boomers with his plan to give young workers the chance to opt out of Social Security by investing in IRA-type retirement plans. But in the first Republican candidates' debate he also plugged his mandatory drug-testing program, probably the single issue most identified with him, and attacked Vice President Bush for his support of the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty.

Ironically, the 63-year-old Bush may yet become the boomers' favorite candidate, as his savvy campaign manager Lee Atwater has been promising. Bush has never been strongly identified with firm stands on issues, a factor that has contributed to his "wimp" image and led to du Pont's debate charge that Bush had offered no "vision, principle or policy."

But Bush has recently been confounding those who thought he had no firm convictions, and he has been moving in a direction that might prove appealing to baby boomers. In his announcement speech he pledged not to increase taxes, and he followed that up with support for the Taxpayers' Bill of Rights and a

cut in the capital-gains tax rate. His announcement also promised "greater tolerance," a word that is important to young voters and rarely spoken by Republicans. Finally, unlike most of his GOP opponents, he is supporting the INF Treaty, calling it "good for my grandchildren and for the whole world."

Could good soldier George Bush emerge as the baby boomers' candidate, bringing a new generation of voters into the Republican Party with an agenda of free enterprise, tolerance and arms control? It seems unlikely, but stranger things have happened.

If one Republican candidate would offer a program of peace and free enterprise, he would attract a lot of attention and quite possibly - given the 2-1 support for the INF Treaty among GOP party members - more Republican voters than conventional analysts might suspect. He certainly would have a good shot at bringing a whole new group of voters into the primaries. Until some candidate does that, however, the baby boomers are likely to remain a lost opportunity for both parties.

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