Young Conservatives Feel Left Out

By Ian Shapira
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 26, 2009; C01

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 . . .

Bettina Inclan, 29, who was a Republican Party "victory director" with McCain's campaign in Miami-Dade, just found a job as a communications and outreach director for the nonprofit activist organization Citizens in Charge, which pushes states to enact legislation through ballot initiatives and referendums and is led by a weekly columnist for the conservative Web site

She says she would never have sought work with the reigning party.

"My family sacrificed everything to come to this country so the government wouldn't interfere with their lives," Inclan says. "I am not caught up in the hype of Obama. When you don't buy into whatever everyone else is doing, they wonder, 'Why aren't you with the cool kids?' "

In a New York Times column last June, David Brooks wrote that a new commentariat of young conservative writers -- such as Julian Sanchez, Megan McArdle and Will Wilkinson -- has come of age "as official conservatism slipped into decrepitude . . . put off by the shock-jock rhetorical style of Ann Coulter."

Scott Keeter, survey research director at the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, suggests there may be broad reasons why Republicans are not in sync with millennials. "I don't want to go too far and say this is a lost generation for the Republican Party," Keeter says. "But it's a serious portent that [young people's affection for the Democratic Party] is not dependent on Obama -- it's a function of demographic shifts, and that this generation came of age when the Republican brand has been damaged."

Here's what the GOP is up against: Analysis of network exit polls by The Washington Post and Pew show that in terms of both party identification and vote margin, the Democrats' advantage over Republicans among voters younger than 30 is as large as it has been in more than three decades. Looking at party affiliation, for instance, in 2008, 46 percent of 18-to-29-year-olds identified as Democrats, 27 percent as independents and 27 percent as Republicans, about the same as the breakdown in 1972. But as recently as 2000, there was much more parity: 36 percent were Democrats, 29 percent independents and 35 percent Republicans.

At the Union Pub, Dustin Siggins, 24, says he sometimes uses humor to deflect the awkwardness of being on the margins of his generation. "I met a girl today at the gym from Boston College. She was getting a law degree from George Washington. She was cute," he says. "But she wants to work for the ACLU, and I said, 'Oh, you're one of those.' "

Later, in a phone interview, Siggins says he struggles with some of his party's more culturally orthodox ideals. "Because I am in this generation and was raised in a pro-gay-marriage era, I am only a little bit against gay marriage, but only a little, like 53 percent to 47," he says. "I have about a dozen gay friends, 30 or 20, and they would all back me up. In college, I used to have lunch with them. . . . We went ice skating once."

Some are trying to bolster the youth movement, one instant message at a time.

Peter Suderman, 27, and Conor Friedersdorf, 29, both of the District, were recently laid off from jobs at the now-defunct Web magazine, which had a conservative-Libertarian bent. Now, with about $250 each a month due in student loan payments, and money saved from their previous jobs, they are scrambling for new gigs.

Suderman settled into his home office one day recently to IM with Friedersdorf. "I see liberal reporter friends from small publications who are covering White House press conferences who are my age or a bit older," Suderman said. "Used to be, that publication would not get into the White House or not get the information."

But he and Friedersdorf, reveling in their underdog status, have a plan. They want to start a right-of-center journalism site, something that features deeply reported stories and relies on the investigative skills of their readers to "crow d-source" articles. So, they start tapping away on their computers, slowly elbowing their subculture's way back into the fray, to the sounds of Gmail's IM alerts ringing back and forth.

Polling director Jon Cohen and polling analyst Jennifer Agiesta contributed to this report.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company