A Boomer in Chief? No Thanks.
They're handsome and intelligent. Their biographies are scandal-free. They're fresh, optimistic faces in a candidate field stacked with the stale and the dour.
So why are Barack Obama and Mitt Romney having such a tough time in the presidential race?
Here's a theory: because they're boomers.
At least in part, the senator from Illinois and the former Massachusetts governor have not gained national traction because they both give off the scent of excessive narcissism that has been turning off scores of Silent Generation elders and Gen-X juniors throughout the Me Generation's political ascendance.
It's surprising that more hasn't been made of the link between voter dissatisfaction with their 2008 choices and the preponderance of boomers on both parties' ballots. Of the 15 "major" candidates, only seven -- Democrats Chris Dodd and Joe Biden and Republicans Fred Thompson, John McCain, Ron Paul, Tom Tancredo and Rudy Giuliani -- were born before the boom exploded in 1946. When Biden or McCain scold their boomer rivals for self-serving doubletalk and situational ethics, they're channeling the frustrations of many with boom-generation politicians.
Consider Obama's response when a reporter in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, asked him last month why he stopped wearing an American flag pin on his lapel. He'd had one right after Sept. 11, 2001, he said, but as the country lurched toward an invasion of Iraq, he began to see the pin as "a substitute" for "true patriotism." Instead of sullying his suit coat with what apparently now was a reprehensible symbol of reckless militarism, Obama said he was "going to try to tell the American people what I believe will make this country great, and hopefully that will be a testimony to my patriotism."
Unsurprisingly, the right wing pounced, framing Pingate as yet another example of knee-jerk left-wing contempt for the national symbol. Even ABC's George Stephanopoulos noted that "it probably appeals to some in the Democratic base who are very much antiwar, but it could limit his gains further on down the road."
Why would Obama damage himself this way just to make a debatable rhetorical point more suitable for a Georgetown cocktail party than a post-9/11 political campaign? After all, he has seemed more alert than most to simmering anti-boomer sentiment, cultivating an image as a generational change-agent skillfully enough to persuade pundit Andrew Sullivan to write in the Atlantic that "he could take America -- finally -- past the debilitating, self-perpetuating family quarrel of the Baby Boom generation."
But Obama is afflicted with the same boomer reflexes that Romney displayed when an Iowa voter asked him why his five sons hadn't enlisted in the military to pursue the foreign policy goals he so effusively praises. "One of the ways my sons are showing support for our nation is helping me get elected, because they think I'd be a great president," he told the Associated Press. His 36-year-old son Josh, Romney said, had performed an especially patriotic service by stumping for Dad across Iowa in an RV. Voters nationwide still haven't stopped shaking their heads over that one.
These widely ridiculed paeans to flag-free patriotism and Winnebago nationalism are examples of a disturbing trend in boomer political culture: the instinctive substitution of personal ego and self-aggrandizement for pragmatic judgment and civic accountability. Obama wants voters to believe that he's the antidote to the right-leaning Beltway groupthink that got us into Iraq. But he eagerly indulged in left-leaning posturing on a topic he had to know was a political land mine. At least Romney eventually apologized for his gaffe. Still, he expects the electorate to see his close-knit family as an allegory for his presumably inspired leadership. But he had no decent answer to a question as obvious as why his sons weren't serving in the war he so loudly backs.
No wonder these me-oriented candidacies leave so many voters cold. Obama and Romney are just the latest in a string of boom-era political leaders who've run afoul of a favorite boomer slogan: "The personal is political."
That phrase originally referred to the feminist conviction that political and cultural forces have more impact on the course of our lives than do our personalities and individual decisions. But growing up in the 1960s and '70s in Cambridge, Mass., a greenhouse of boomer political identity, I saw that bumper sticker saying take on a more narcissistic meaning.