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Sunday, October 23, 2016

WASHINGTON — In all of rock ‘n’ roll history, one of the most misguided, if entirely memorable, refrains came in an otherwise excellent 1965 song by The Who. “I hope I die before I get old,” they declared in “My Generation.” I doubt that many people who joyfully sang along with those lyrics 50 years ago really believed them, except perhaps metaphorically.

But the song captured something that was in the air then and has never fully left us. Every generation considers itself special, but the post-World War II period saw the rise of a particularly powerful brand of generational consciousness and it permeated American politics.

John F. Kennedy built his career on the theme. He was first elected to Congress in 1946 at age 29 on the slogan: “The New Generation Offers a Leader.” Seeing no need to change what had worked for him, he accepted the Democratic presidential nomination in 1960 by declaring it was time “for a new generation of leadership — new men to cope with new problems and new opportunities.”

Since Kennedy, many other politicians have sounded the generational trumpet. Joe Biden and Gary Hart both riffed on it in the 1980s. So did Bill Clinton in the 1990s and Barack Obama seven years ago, with more success.

This week, it was Marco Rubio’s turn. “This election is a generational choice about what kind of country we will be,” he declared in announcing his presidential candidacy on Monday, the day after Hillary Clinton launched hers. Her entry gave him a convenient opening for the soundbite that reverberated across the media.

“Now, just yesterday,” he said, “a leader from yesterday began a campaign for president by promising to take us back to yesterday. Yesterday is over.” In case you missed the point, he warned of the dangers of “going back to the leaders and ideas of the past.”

For Rubio, the age thing gives him a chance to go after Clinton directly, but also allows him to take a poke at his rival, Jeb Bush (b. Feb. 11, 1953), without saying a single bad word about his one-time mentor.

On the other hand, Rubio (b. May 28, 1971) can’t make much of the fact that he is all of five months younger than Ted Cruz (b. Dec. 22, 1970), and it’s not clear where the past/future dynamic leaves him vis-à-vis Scott Walker (b. Nov. 2, 1967) or Rand Paul (b. Jan. 7, 1963). Generational politics doesn’t always work, as Biden and Hart can testify.

There is also this: People’s attitudes about the ideal age for a candidate are very closely related to how old their partisan or ideological favorite is. I rather doubt that Rubio will say a nasty word about Ronald Reagan (b. Feb. 6, 1911). Reagan was elected president in 1980 at the age of 69, which happens to be the age Hillary Clinton (b. Oct. 26, 1947) will be on Election Day 2016 — except that, as you can see, she’ll be a few months younger than he was.

And while Rubio casts himself as an innovative thinker, it’s quite hard to distinguish between what he’s saying and what Reagan ran on 35 years ago. In his announcement, Rubio spoke with compassion about “small-business owners who are left to struggle under the weight of more taxes, more regulation and more government.” Nothing new there. He spoke of “our leaders … taxing and borrowing and regulating like it’s 1999.” Change “1999” to “1979” and that could be the Gipper talking.

Rubio said we needed to “remember that the family, not the government, is the most important institution in our society.” Of course that’s true at one level, although the sort of government we have powerfully affects the kinds of lives families can have. This, presumably, is why Rubio is running for president. But however you look at it, his idea here is several hundred, and maybe several thousand, years old.

But the biggest challenge to Ponce de León politics is that the younger generation doesn’t always buy in. Reagan split the votes of those 18-29 years old with Jimmy Carter in 1980, and in 1984, at the age of 73, won 59 percent of the ballots cast by the under 30s.

Playing the youth-and-future card may well be Rubio’s best option. But to make it work, he’ll have to persuade those who heard the rest of his speech and wondered whether he is proposing to lead us forward into — well, yesterday.

E.J. Dionne’s email address is [email protected] Twitter: @EJDionne.

Photo: Gage Skidmore via Flickr

  • Dominick Vila

    Sen. Rubio’s chances to win the nomination of the GOP are going to be decided by his ethnicity, cultural background, his record, and professional/personal achievements, rather than by asserting the fact that he is young. I doubt Hillary’s age, and her experiences or achievements, will bother too many Americans. What will influence the opinion of voters the most is the vision or agenda of each candidate. People are eager for change, they want leaders that focus on job creation and the strengthening of our economy, they want leaders with the character and demeanor needed to make sound decisions that address both short and long term objectives, and they want leaders committed to doing everything possible to defend our national security.
    Marco’s record is limited to the cacophonous mantra of trickle down economics, opposition to the re-establishment of diplomatic and trade relations with Cuba, opposition to an agreement with Iran, and a proposal to solve the illegal immigration problem that he had to abandon when he realized that his decision was poison for the GOP base. Honestly, he does not have a chance to be the GOP nominee, or the running mate of whomever the GOP happens to be (probably Jeb Bush, who will most likely choose a woman as his running mate to mitigate the Hillary factor).

    • 1standlastword

      Marco fits the instant-oatmeal-just-add-water-giant-screen-TV culture we have become in some of our most vulnerable least intellectually curious communities.

      His sex appeal is his calling card!

      In a debate with Hillary he will look just like the Boy Wonder next to Batman. He will serve her purpose!

    • TZToronto

      Having a woman as VP candidate might have worked for McCain if he had chosen someone who read a newspaper. Young people are concerned about one thing, mainly: Where will I find a job? And when they do find one, they will want to be making a decent living, not working for $4/hour in a state that’s done away with minimum wage laws. The smarter ones among them will see the right wing for what it is–a vaguely criminal organization bent on taking everything for themselves and denying a decent life to anyone who is in need.

      • Dominick Vila

        I read an interesting article today about fast food workers striking and demanding higher wages. The most embarrassing part was the support they got from workers in many foreign countries, encouraging to stand firm if their goal is to earn livable wages…in the USA!
        Our minimum wage is an embarrassment. It is, clearly, inadequate in most parts of the country, and it is inconsistent with what most industrialized nations do: pay livable wages, not only as a moral imperative, but to increase consumer spending to help their economies grow.

        • TZToronto

          You’re right, of course. But those on the right see economics as a zero-sum game. The more you pay me, the less you have. That’s why they can’t understand why higher taxes and higher minimum wages are often associated with periods of prosperity. But accumulation of wealth is best appreciated when it’s exponential rather than additive.

  • Daniel Jones

    “Yesterday, all my troubles seemed so far away;
    Now it looks as though they’re here to stay.
    Oh, I believe in yesterday.”

    The problem is this is the here and now.

  • Grannysmovin

    He may be youthful in appearance, but his policies and ideology are older than Bush and Clinton. New suit same old body.

    • johninPCFL

      “And while Rubio casts himself as an innovative thinker, it’s quite hard to distinguish between what he’s saying and what Reagan ran on 35 years ago. ”

      Yeah, he’s channeling Ronnie. Talk about running on old ideas – borrow and spend, borrow and spend. Congress passes a law you don’t like? Here’s the template for “ignore it and do what you will”. He’s also the template for “just invade and let the winners decide”. Don’t like government spending? Sure, but you NEVER VETO a spending bill.

  • FT66

    I didn’t like what Rubio said to HRC that she is yesterday and he is today. That was a horrible thing to say to any woman. HRC can be Rubio’s mother. I don’t think he could had said the same to his own mother. Where has respect gone? leave alone being in competition to become President. I can assure Rubio, his statement has annoyed elders especially many mothers and he might pay a high price for his comment.

  • 1standlastword

    Marco Rubio, acolyte of the modern ‘pernicious republicanism’!!