Have you noticed the droopy, silver-haired antiquity of the House Democratic leadership in the new Congress? Michael Barone has, and he talks about it in a recent column at RealClearPolitics ("Wily Old Dems take on Whippersnapper Republicans"). The GOP landslide in the 2010 midterm election brought many young Republicans into the House of Representatives, swept out some young Democrats, and left the liberal Old Bulls in the same seats they have occupied for 30 or 40 years or more.
Democrats like to think of themselves as the young party, the party of new ideas. And in 2010, they remained the choice of the youngest voters, though by only half the margin in 2008. But Barone points out:
"But when you look at the top Democrats in the House, you don't see young faces. The ages of the ranking Democrats on the Appropriations, Ways and Means, Education, Energy and Commerce, Financial Services, Foreign Affairs, and Judiciary committees are 70, 79, 65, 71, 70, 69, and 81. The three party leaders are 70, 71, and 70."
Whereas the Republicans in the House have term limits for committee chairmen, the Democrats do not. So powerful and politically able pols can hold on to their positions through the wilderness years until their time comes up, and only death can take them out. Gerrymandering protects them from the voters, and party-wide shamelessness insulates them from the effects of scandal. You would not have a Paul Ryan, R-Wis., or an Eric Cantor, R-Va., in charge of the money under Democratic congressional control. And you didn't. But you see it now under Republican governance in the lower house.
Barone sees that generation of Democratic leaders as working with an outdated model of the country he calls "Big Unit America." It is a country controlled by big government, big business, and big labor. Think of Keynesian economics, LBJ's New Society initiated from Washington, the old unionized workforce that would regularly bring the country to a standstill with strikes and sympathy strikes, Big Blue, and "what's good for GM is good for America." Barone continues:
"The assumption was that these units would grow ever bigger, to the benefit of ordinary people. That assumption was shared by the Democratic leaders of the just-departed 111th Congress, who grew up in Big Unit America. They passed a $787 billion stimulus package on the assumption that big government would put people to work. They passed the healthcare bill on the assumption that centralized experts in big government could provide better care at lower costs."
While it is true that younger voters are still breaking for the Democrats, as they grow up and put life and politics together they will find that the Big Unit view of the world is not theirs. The younger generation values personal control of their lives, and this priority is driven by technology. They have personal settings and privacy settings for everything. They are used to having My-this and My-that. Niche news and information sources on the internet have replaced the big three networks of the 1970s. They are used to being heard (or at least thinking they're being heard) through everything from blogs and comment threads to the widely publicized chatter of social network sites. Centralized, bossy, deaf bureaucracies will not be their thing. It's not how they roll.
These are people who design their own Converse high-tops online before they buy them.
What does this mean, for example, for one of the great issues facing the nation in the next few years: the replacement stage of repealing and replacing Obamacare? Consumer-driven healthcare reform is a natural fit for this iGeneration. It is an approach to healthcare that puts health insurance in the hands of the people who use it, not of employers or of government, and makes providers responsive primarily to those who benefit from their services. If the GOP can connect this great reform with this rising generation, people like Paul Ryan and Eric Cantor will be in office for a long time to come.