GENERATIONAL WARFARE JULY 1, 2013
Both Michael Tomasky and my colleague Isaac Chotiner have noted the, er, potential pitfalls in the apparent Republican plan to cast Hillary Clinton as, basically, an old woman in contrast to all the 40- and 50-something Republican men who might oppose her for the presidency. And my colleague Alec MacGillis has argued that even a less flagrantly ad hominem version of this attack—that Clinton comes from a bygone era—is unlikely to work after eight years of a young, black chief executive.
Clinton should do more than just wait for the attacks to fail or prepare to pounce in a fit of umbrage, though. Instead, she should embrace the critique, and make it a strength. Not the age part. The generation part. Clinton’s campaign should be a self-conscious swansong for the Baby Boomers.
Clinton has long been the defining Boomer icon—yes, even more than her husband. It was she, not Bill, who was featured in a 1969 Life spread after she gave a newsmaking commencement address at Wellesley; she, not Bill, who represented a novel break from tradition in her office (she was by far the most openly politically savvy First Lady ever; by contrast, before Clinton we had had a few Southern white male presidents); she, not Bill, whose fiftieth birthday was treated as a Boomer Moment. When Bill won the presidency in 1992, his youth mattered a great deal, his specific generation less so (indeed, his anti-Vietnam activism’s contrast with George H.W. Bush’s Greatest Generation-ness turned out to be something of a non-issue). By contrast, that Obama was of a roughly different generation than both Bill and George W. Bush was a key part of the case made against Clinton in the 2008 Democratic primaries, most influentially by Andrew Sullivan.
There is no seeing Clinton without the Baby Boomer connotation. So she should make that work for her. Her campaign could be the Boomers’ last go-round. She could explicitly ask the country to give her generation, through her, one last chance to address those problems—from dangeous climate change to galloping entitlement costs—that in the past her generation has been fairly accused of selfishly ignoring or even abetting. And at the same time she could run as an advocate and even embodiment of all the big things the Boomers got right: personal freedoms, including abortion rights; tolerance of gays and lesbians and other classes of citizens who 50 years ago were outcasts; and, above all, feminism.
The quarter of the population that are members of this generation would presumably find much to like. And the generation that are their children might be finally old enough to appreciate Boomers’ charms—witness Clinton’s a-meme-ability—and forgive them their excesses. Gov. Scott Walker can quip, “If you want to keep thinking about tomorrow, maybe it’s time to put somebody new in,” and Clinton can respond by noting that Fleetwood Mac is currently on tour, thank you very much.