Young Conservatives Feel Left Out

By Ian Shapira
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 26, 2009

It's early February, and the happy hour at the Union Pub on Capitol Hill is jammed with an unlikely slice of young Washington strivers: conservatives, libertarians, free-market/small-government types, anyone right of center. People, in other words, in their 20s or early 30s who actually groan at the label Generation Obama.

Organized by an employee at the Grover Norquist-led Americans for Tax Reform, the party in the pub's back barroom seems naturally suited for this group: Fox News is playing alongside the Dave Matthews tracks. One drink special, $5 for a down-on-the-heels set, seems almost too perfect a nostalgic prop: "The Gipper," concocted with bourbon.

Spencer Barrs, 22, a Heritage Foundation intern, is talking with his buddies about feelings of alienation.

"My best friend called and asked who I voted for and I told him I wasn't voting for Obama," Barrs says. "And then he told me, 'I just think you hate black people.' It was a shot to the gut. You feel like you're surrounded on all corners."

His friend John O'Keefe, 23, another conservative think-tank intern who might be out of a job after his internship ends in May, dismisses his liberal contemporaries. "The only thing they have are blogs. They feel like gods of our generation," he says, before ruminating on a very Washington cure-all. "I'm hoping that people get [angry] at Obama and start forming political action committees."

There's hope among today's young conservatives -- new Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele just announced an "off the hook" public relations blitz to woo young people -- but there's also a lot of alienation. Those 18 to 29, part of the "millennial generation," voted overwhelmingly for Obama in the presidential election, according to polling data. Some at this happy hour won't name their employers in social settings with contemporaries because they fear it will create awkwardness.

"I just say that I work at a nonprofit," says Margaret Taylor, 24, who won't say for publication which organization she works for, other than that it's economically oriented.

Others, meanwhile, worry that they might not have jobs in Washington for long. Recession-related reasons aside, right-of-center young people looking for steady work with an ideological bent are having an unusually difficult time. For much of the past decade, young conservatives enjoyed an array of job opportunities in the Republican-controlled Congress and at insulated, well-funded nonprofit organizations. But since Democrats gained control in 2006, many prized slots on Senate and House committees started going to the new majority. And now, there's no Republican administration in power to offer jobs to its own.

Young conservatives could apply for regular jobs, they acknowledge, but they also believe that their 20s are a safe age -- likely no children, often unmarried -- to start low- to moderate-paying jobs that potentially could launch prestigious careers in politics or public policy. The tough job market only reinforces their sense of being marooned.

At Heritage, one of Washington's premier conservative think tanks, the organization's Young Leaders Program job bank is receiving résumés from 20-somethings nationwide. But employers are not tapping the source as much as in past years, a sign that the potent conservative think tanks and other machinelike organizations of the Bush years might be waning. "It's gone from maybe three or four calls a day to one or two," said David Barnes, the program's assistant director. "It's bad."

Justin Rand, 24, formerly a "confidential assistant" in the White House's drug policy office, exited right before the election to work on John McCain's campaign -- so, he hoped, he could remain at the White House. After McCain's loss, Rand could no longer stay in Washington because, among other reasons, he couldn't find a job. He has since moved in with his parents in Jacksonville, Fla.

Still, the young conservatives talk about sticking to their principles. Their party and their policies will come back. And what does not kill you . . .

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