When Paul Ryan mounts the podium on Wednesday to deliver his acceptance speech, he will give conservatives not just the ideological edge they have been longing for, but also an image of youth. At 42 years old, he would not be the youngest Vice-President in recent times—that honor goes to Dan Quayle--but certainly the one who looks the most boyish. And he is paired against Joe Biden, now 70, and if elected the second oldest ever to hold that office. Ryan, a Gen-Xer who can relate to the Millennials, is still youthful enough to say “cool,” and he can plausibly list the rock band Rage Against The Machine as one of his favorites, even if RATM guitarist Tom Morello, for obvious professional reasons, felt obliged to denounce Ryan for his “rage against women and his rage against the environment.”
How much does this youth image matter? Obviously, a great deal in the eyes of the Obama campaign, which is trying to counter any kind of Republican appeal to the young. In a break with the decorum of allowing the opposition party to have its say during its convention, President Obama has a full series of campaign events planned this week, many on college campuses. On the day of Ryan’s speech, Obama is seeking to pre-empt him with a visit to Charlottesville and the University of Virginia, to identify his cause with Thomas Jefferson. Obama will be repeating his strategy of promising defined benefits to every group within his coalition—minorities, women, and in this case especially the young. Although the President cannot offer the college students what many of them most want, work at an NGO or as a documentary film maker, he will remind youth of his cap on student loan payments, which were nationalized under his administration, at ten percent of discretionary income. And one shouldn’t forget his generous offer in his 2010 State of the Union address to forgive all student loans after ten years to those doing public service work, like a public sector job or community organizing.
The aim of the Obama campaign is to keep the 2008 coalition intact, or enough of it—since Obama had a cushion last time—to capture a majority. The weakest link in this strategy is among the youth. Exit polls from 2008 show that Obama attracted 66 percent of voters aged 18-29. While he is certain to carry this block again in November, it may be by a much smaller margin. A recent mock ballot conducted by John Zogby showed Romney receiving 41 percent of this group to Obama’s 49 percent. True, the young vote at a lower rate than other age groups but this category still makes up around 18 percent of the entire electorate, and a slippage of support could spell the difference for Obama’s quest for victory. Hence all the Rage Against Ryan.
The significance of the youth vote is not just in the numbers. The judgment of the young goes right to the core of President Obama’s self-proclaimed political philosophy of progressivism. The task of progressivism is to lead us into the future. As one of the first progressives, Woodrow Wilson argued during his presidential campaign in 1912, “Progress, development, — those are modern words. The modern idea is to leave the past and press onward to something new.” The original progressives sought to ride a noble upward movement of history; President Obama has sought to give shape to this trajectory. This seems to be the meaning of his most famous of Yoda-like utterances in 2008 “we are the ones we've been waiting for. We are the change that we seek.” And the “we” is above all the youth.
For the progressives the youth vote consequently has a moral or metaphysical weight that exceeds that of any other element of the coalition, even the put upon and oppressed. Though their suffering may indict the existing order, youth speaks in the name of the highest authority: where things are going. If the young are not convincingly on Obama’s side, if the direction of history does not vindicate progressive policies, like Obamacare, progressive politics itself begins to collapse. And so does progressives’ confidence in their superiority over conservatism. To imagine conservatism having an appeal to youth is a contradiction in terms. How can history go backward when it is supposed to go forward?
Here is where Ryan and Romney have a chance to reverse the image of conservatism in relation to the young. Until now only Ronald Reagan has been able to achieve this feat. The Republican ticket must dispel the false image that conservatism is part of the past, a task made easier by the sorry performance of the low growth and high unemployment records in the social democratic states of Spain, Italy, and France. Do these Old World nations really present an appealing model for the young in the new millennium? Are American youth, once so impatient, and full of action and pride, ready to join their counterparts in Europe and equate financial security with dependence? Or, as Charles Kesler recently observed, is it not the progressives today that “look increasingly, well, elderly….hard of hearing, irascible, enamored, of past glories, forgetful of mistakes and promises, and prone to repeat the same stories over and over?”
America’s youth suffer from among the highest unemployment rates in today’s economy. Romney’s task is to articulate the inescapable fact underlying young people’s anxieties, a fact that many of them intuit, even if they cannot articulate it: that promises of new state benefits are a ruse. Romney has already tapped into this intuition. Speaking recently to an audience at a New Hampshire college, he refused to join with President Obama in offering “money to pay back your loans for you” adding “I'm not going to promise all sorts of free stuff that I know you're going to end up paying for.”
While truth telling and tough love are not exactly time-honored strategies to electoral victory, there is reason to think that this generation of young people are mentally mature enough for this approach. A 2011 Pew poll found that 46 percent of 18-29 year olds supported the Ryan plan while only 28 percent opposed it. Young people need to understand – and this poll indicates that they are beginning to – that when told that a benefit will be taken away, they are not seeing any cuts to what they would actually receive, for the simple reason that the resources are simply not there to pay for these promises. This is the stark reality that faces them.
The young, with their characteristic idealism, must be sold not just on their interest, but on the morality of the matter. They need to know that granting benefits to the present generation, which will be paid for by the next generation, is a breach of moral principle. If they will not listen to Paul Ryan or Mitt Romney on this point, maybe they will listen to Thomas Jefferson: "suppose that…[a previous] generation had said to the money lenders…give us money that we may eat, drink, and be merry in our day;… Would the present generation be obliged to apply the produce of the earth and of their labour to replace their dissipations?"
Joe Biden promised in 2008 that the big problem facing the nation was found in a “three letter word…J-O-B-S.” This time around there is another three letter word that he and the president do not even dare to mention: D-E-B-T.
James Ceaser is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and the Harry F. Byrd Professor of Politics at the University of Virginia and director of the Program for Constitutionalism and Democracy. John York is a graduate student in politics as the University of Virginia.