Advancing a Free Society

Ryan and the (Gen) X Factor

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Contradictions surround the 2012 presidential race.

If Mitt Romney wins, he’s a Republican elected from a true-blue Democratic state. That just doesn’t happen.

Nor does a candidate normally win a national contest having given away his birth and residential states. But that’s a distinct possibility for Romney, with Massachusetts and Michigan likely beyond his reach (the only presidential candidate to pull this off: James K. Polk, who lost both his native North Carolina and his adopted Tennessee in 1844).

As for Barack Obama, he’s looking at two oddities should he prevail: a fall-off in electoral votes (first time it would have happened to a repeat winner since Franklin Roosevelt in 1944), plus a drop-off in popular votes (again, FDR, seeking a fourth term). The last first-term elected incumbent to have gone where Obama’s going: Woodrow Wilson in 1916 (nearly three million more votes than in 1912, but 177 fewer electoral votes). Otherwise, no elected incumbent has won a second term while seeing a decline in the popular vote.

(Here’s more trivia: Adding up the successful first-term elected incumbents of 1936, 1956, 1956, 1984, 1996 and 2004 – but not including the results from 1972, which was a spike of 15.4 million votes and 221 electoral votes – and a winning incumbent can expect an average gain of roughly 5.4 million votes and 25 electoral votes. Obama’s numbers in 2008: a record 69.5 million votes, 365 EV’s.)

There’s one other oddity, and it’ll be on display in Thursday night’s presidential debate in Danville, Kentucky.

Generational outlook.

In 2008, Barack Obama and John McCain had the largest age-gap in presidential history – a difference of 25 years. Had it been a closer contest, perhaps we’d have had a discussion of the generational aspects of the two candidates – “Silent Generation” (McCain born in 1936) vs. “Baby Boomers” (Obama born in 1961). But thanks to the economic crisis, anti-war sentiment and Bush fatigue, the race never came close to that conversation.

But 2012 is a different contest, starring two nominees from opposite ends of the Boomer generation. Yet, there is a generational contrast – this time, provided by the two vice presidential candidates.

If re-elected, the 69-year-old Joe Biden (he turns 70 two weeks after the election, putting him at the tail end of the Silent Generation) would become the nation’s second-oldest veep, trailing only Alben Barkley. As for the 42-year-old Paul Ryan, if elected he’d be America’s third-youngest vice president in modern times, senior only to Dan Quayle (two weeks shy of 42 when he took office in 1989) and Richard Nixon (barely 40 when he took the vice-presidential oath in 1953).

With two notable differences.

While Nixon and Quayle earned a spot on their respective tickets in part for their generational appeal, neither stood out, in policy contrast, to their running mates. That’s not the case with Ryan, who’s exceptional for his unflinching embrace of federal and entitlement reform (as seen in this Hoover Uncommon Knowledge interview) – an embrace far more passionate than anything Romney offered in the primaries.

Second, Ryan is the first member of Generation X (born between 1965 and 1984) to appear on a national ticket

And that’s something to keep an eye on during Thursday night’s debate.

Yes, Biden should offer a more passionate performance than Obama last week in Denver (who couldn’t?). Though, like Obama there’s a question of rust: Biden hasn’t had a difficult sit-down interview in at least five months). The expectation is a debate loaded with fireworks.

And, yes, there’s a question of whether Biden will have one of his political Tourette moments – likening Republicans to plantation owners, bragging about tax increases (here’s a longer list of Biden no-no’s). We already have TebowingRG3’ing and Eastwooding. Add to the list “Bidening”: if you’re a Democrat, placing your hands on either side of your face and mimicking Munch’s “The Scream”.

But getting back to Ryan and the Gen X factor. We know how it works stylistically: the small-town Wisconsinite likes to listen to ‘90’s grunge music and drink micro-brews.

But on the national debate stage, it’s Ryan’s chance to connect with 30- and 40-somethings who fear that government entitlements won’t be around by the time they retire.

The first Romney-Obama debate didn’t offer such a distinction. While Romney was the more effective debater, both candidates got bogged down in mind-numbing concepts like $700 billion Medicare cuts. We’ll see if Ryan can debate this point more clearly, or Biden’s more effective at putting the congressman off-balance and off-message.

One theory why the national spotlight could be fertile ground for a big-idea reformer like Ryan: Gen-Xers grew up witnessing societal institutions falling apart – parents divorcing; latchkey afternoons alone; schools deteriorating. Politically, that’s made them cynical, distrusting of government, and wary of social activism to cure the world’s woes. Researchers say Gen-Xers are more Republican and conservative-friendly than the generations before and after (Baby Boomers and Generation Y). Watch and see Thursday night if Ryan can cut through the distracting persiflage of Big Bird and who’s-doing-what to the safety net and explain to his generation that government spending – Medicare, defense, you name it – isn’t defensible, much less sustainable, at its current pace.

A word about vice presidential debates. In the scheme of presidential elections, they rarely matter much. Dan Quayle took a beating in 1988 and the elder George Bush still won 40 of 50 states on Election Day.

But as last week’s presidential debate showed, it might be a more volatile electorate than has been widely assumed. Romney went into that first debate in Denver trailing Obama, 51-43, according to the Pew Research Center. Pew’s post-debate survey had Romney leading, 49-45 (most astonishingly, Obama’s 18-point lead among women vanished).

A word of caution about that survey: it’s sampling was weighted in favor of Republicans (+5%), which might not be the case come Election Day (here’s a Daily Caller piece analyzing Pew’s methodology). But, combined with Obama’s lousy performance in Denver, it adds to a narrative that momentum is on Romney’s side – and the pressure is mounting on Biden to, in effect, put President Humpty back together again.

No doubt that was a big topic of conversation during Biden’s six days of debate preparation – double the President’s prep-time (by ABC News’ count, Biden’s participated in 23 debates during his four decades as a senatorial, presidential and vice-presidential candidate vs. eight congressional debates for Ryan).

But does Biden, in trying to compensate for Obama’s debate skid, overcompensate by pulling too hard in the opposite direction. It’s what they teach you not to do in driver’s-ed: turning into the skid, not against it.

Bombast, not nuance, is Joe Biden’s strong suit. Depth and details is Paul Ryan’s. We’ll see which is present and stage-center on Thursday night.


Follow Bill Whalen on Twitter @hooverwhalen