If there is one thing that rankles Gary Hart, it's the idea that the young have turned Republican. After all, the young were his kind of people, at least in the Democratic primaries. Now all the analysts are talking about a massive "realignment" in party demographics and to the Republicans go the young.
Hart doesn't agree, and he came to Boston this week, protected by neither a topcoat nor a Secret Service escort, to counterattack. He directed much of his first major post-election-or-pre-election speech, and a conversation afterward, to the matter of the "lost" youth.
The senator never did like the term "Yuppie," and doesn't believe that the young or the urban or the professional can only be won over by promises of a gold American Express card in every pot. He used the word "materialism" seven times in his speech and not once favorably. It was the "new patriotism" versus materialism, idealism versus materialism and community versus materialism.
"The pressures of 'success,' the attractions of materialism, the fragmentation of society into interest groups have all made us into free agents," said this man who was the candidate of the high- tech crowd just a year ago. "Modern pressures are toward atomization, insularity and a go-it-alone mentality. . . . A new patriotism requires that we reestablish the ties of a common cause."
There were rhetorical echoes of Mario Cuomo and of role-model Kennedy in Hart's words. But what sounded unique in this political climate was the senator's conviction that the Democrats can win the young back with an appeal to idealism.
The Democrats can't top the Republican gold card with a platinum promise, he insists, because "we can't out-Reagan Reagan." They can however, support ideas such as universal national service for the young, that "will ask young Americans to return some of the advantages and investments they have received from our society."
It isn't just that Hart refuses to give up the young to the Republicans; it's that he refuses to give up on the young. Score one for stubbornness.
Among Democrats in the post-defeat doldrums, this belief in youthful idealism is about as rare as a "Mondale in '88" button. The Republicans portray youth as shiny and smiling winners. But many of the Democrats, particularly in the "Big Chill" subsection, have dismissed them as self-centered airheads who get what they deserve, including cuts in college loans.
The evidence that the young are attracted to causes and political commitment is fairly slim these days. It's the unusual college student who signs up for a full semester of idealism. Those half a generation older are more likely to spend their days with computers and their nights building biceps.
The most recent survey of college freshmen showed that most of these 18- year-olds were majoring in the materialism Hart decried. More than two-thirds said a "very important" reason for attending college was "to be able to make more money." Only half said that in 1971. During the same time span, the desire to be well-off financially went from ninth place in a list of personal values to second place. The only greater (and related) desire was to be tops in their field of interest.
But Hart the pragmatist is convinced that idealism is there; it just hasn't been engaged in a long time. "I am trying to say that if you offer a challenge, people will aspire to something greater. It's hard. Nixon made it hard, assassinations made it hard, Vietnam made it hard. We've been through a rough time."
Curiously, this post-election Hart sounds more like an elder than a member of this new generation. He resembles a middle-aged, middle-class parent in an affluent society worrying whether his kids are grateful, wondering if they learned they should pay dues for the good life and hoping for the best.
"My basic premise," said Hart, "is that there's idealism in American society. If I'm wrong, I'm just whistling in the wind. If I'm right, that's the area the Republicans aren't appealing to. There will always be a hollowness in the right- wing promise."
It is, blessedly, too early to begin the 1988 campaign. But if youthful idealism exists, it's playing a pretty fair game of possum. It may take just this long to lure it out.