Wednesday, January 09, 2008

This election emerging as a generational tug-of-war


This is proving to be a campaign of epic generational divides.

Two combative, tested political veterans emerged as winners in New Hampshire, the 70-year-old former POW, John McCain, and the former First Lady, Hillary Clinton, always fond of talking about her 35 years of public service. They won impressively, both rising from premature wakes – for McCain in July and for Clinton following her Iowa defeat last week. (So much for real reporting by political correspondents on the ground.)

This was just Round 2 of what could be races close enough to carry right through to the summer conventions. While exit polls in New Hampshire showed a sharp split between men and women on the Democratic side, something that had not occurred in Iowa, it also showed an equally remarkable split on the continuum of generation – something that did take place in Iowa as well. Barack Obama resounding won the under 40 vote. Hillary Clinton resoundingly won the over 65 vote. The rest leaned toward Clinton, too.

On the Democratic side from here, this campaign will pit age, experience and traditional partisanship against youth, exuberance and the poetry of the possible. Clinton promises to fight the tough fight, to hold the line rather than try to draw new ones, to deal with whatever comes her way “from Day 1.” She also likely use a bit of Bushian "be afraid," as she did the day before New Hampshire when she told The Boston Globe that a terrorist attack could follow the election as it did in Great Britain.

Obama promises a different vision – for the young, for the under-represented, for the collaborative of mind, for the world. He is both suave and passionate, speaking of a less combative framework for solving the country's and world's problems but then exhorting his followers with the chant "I'm fired up. I'm ready to go."

A similar age divide on the Republican side could emerge in the weeks ahead. McCain, Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani, different men with different styles, nonetheless will all campaign on experience and toughness against terrorism. (McCain can add honesty, not always the mayor’s or Romney’s strong suit). Mike Huckabee, meanwhile, already is emerging as the Republican who appeals to the younger, poorer and more disenfranchised Republicans. He’s shown a sense of humor, stresses his poor roots and hasn’t shied from criticizing his president and party.

True, Huckabee won Iowa on the backs of evangelicals, and he is a man who readily and happily wears God on his sleeve. But his appeal will reach beyond the God groupies to those seeking a Republican candidate with an easier, more human approach.

Which side will win? I don’t know, though California is shaping up as the key state on the Democratic side.

One thing I expect to hear a lot more of in the weeks ahead is the weary Bush rhetoric of "be afraid." I hope America’s response is, “No, but you should be afraid instead.”


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