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Many young voters resist politics of baby boom era

Clinton style is seen as outmoded

Email|Print| Text size + By Peter S. Canellos
Globe Staff / February 3, 2008

NEW HAVEN - The baby boom era in presidential politics began with the election of a burger-craving Rhodes Scholar and his high-achieving wife who promised she wouldn't "stay home and bake cookies."

For the 15 years since then, '60s-bred generational themes have reverberated through public life, from an intensive focus on what candidates did during the Vietnam era, to balancing demands for social changes and resistance to them, and coming to grips with Cold War pieties about American exceptionalism and how they apply to a post-Cold War world.

Now, however, polls indicate a strong resistance by younger people to another presidential candidate defined by baby-boomer issues - the same high-achieving wife, whose election as the first woman president would mark the fruition of feminist aspirations born in the '60s. At the same time, young people have provided the base of support for Barack Obama, a 46-year-old candidate who, while technically a baby boomer, represents a clear turning of the page in generational politics.

Interviews with students at both of Hillary Clinton's alma maters, Wellesley College and Yale University, where she attended law school, indicated that to young people, "change" means less a shift in priorities than the end of a political era marked by qualities - confrontation, self-righteousness, the struggle for recognition - that many associate with baby boomers.

"If [Hillary] Clinton becomes president and is reelected it would be 24 years of baby boomer presidents and that would be a lot for one generation," said Megan Carey, a Wellesley senior.

Ben Lazarus, a Yale sophomore who is active in the student group for Obama, put it this way: "There's a new sensibility in how our generation looks at politics and elections. We look at people who are genuine. We look at people who are problem-solvers."

For Lazarus and some other young people, Clinton's direct appeals to women voters are emblematic of a style of politics - built around identity and shared struggles - that many feel is outmoded.

And while some Wellesley students expressed a preference for Clinton because she is an alumna, noting that she personally won over many students in a triumphant return to campus last fall, other young women at both Wellesley and Yale bridled at the notion that they should give special consideration to a woman candidate.

"I don't think I would ever vote for a woman just because she's running," said Tanya Fridland, a Yale freshman from Milwaukee.

"I would love a woman president and I'm sure it will happen," said Adanna Ukah, another Yale freshman. But like most Yale students who've chosen a candidate, she's with Obama. In a campus survey by the Yale Daily News that included candidates of both parties, Obama bested Clinton by 26 percent to 12 percent, with 42 percent undecided.

The turning of the generational calendar has been an unanticipated factor in the 2008 elections. At 60, Clinton is in the normal age range for presidential candidates, and young voters have often been drawn to candidates who are their parents' age and older. As a career woman, Clinton might have expected to appeal more to younger women but instead has found herself trying to woo a new generation that is skeptical of the home/career balancing act that many of Clinton's generation embody.

Polls have shown Clinton with rock-solid support among elderly voters, but dwindling backing among younger demographics. Among people older than 65, she beat Obama by 48 to 32 percent in the New Hampshire primary, according to the exit polls; among voters under 24, Obama clobbered her by 60 to 22.

Melissa Wu, a Yale freshman and psychology major, said, "Psychology-wise, Obama brings something new. Adolescents are in the process of change, of development, of trying new things, and that's why people are attracted to him."

Josh Gordon, a Yale freshman from New York, added, "We're a little starved for excitement in the political arena."

In describing their attraction to Obama, most students insisted that they were simply choosing him, not rejecting anyone else. But in comparing Obama with Clinton, they seized on attributes that are often associated with people born during the baby boom, which spanned from 1946 to 1964 but is generally associated with those, such as Clinton, who were born in the years immediately after World War II.

Americans of Clinton's generation were of college age in the 1960s. Many were shaped either by identification with the protest movements - from antiwar to civil rights and feminism - or by their reaction against them.

Bill and Hillary Clinton are among those who cite the '60s era as a positive influence. George W. Bush, who was also at Yale in the '60s, did not participate in any protests. And Dick Cheney, who was a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin in the '60s, has said he reacted strongly against campus unrest.

But baby boomers on both sides of the protests share other qualities - at least in the minds of some younger people. These include assertiveness, self-seriousness, and a global mindset framed by the Cold War. Many younger people said they would prefer candidates who don't have those qualities.

"The Clintons pride themselves on being the best fighters and no doubt they are," said Yale sophomore Lauren Hunter. "But for my beliefs to succeed I don't need a fighter."

Daniel Cruse, a Yale freshman from Oregon, said he read that Hillary Clinton chose her hometown in New York before a Senate run based on political polls.

"It doesn't really resonate with us that she's so calculating," he said.

In addition, he said, the historical markers that mean so much to the Clintons don't carry the same importance for younger people. "The whole Vietnam era was very important to our parents' generation but doesn't mean very much to our generation," he said.

The same is true of the Cold War. "Too many politicians are harkening back to an era that's passed," said Graham Hardt, a Yale freshman from Florida. "I heard Condi Rice speak about the war on terrorism and I feel like it's a regurgitation of Cold War rhetoric in a new form."

To many young women, Hillary Clinton is associated with the feminist movement, and relatively few college-age women today describe themselves as feminists. Some said they felt the sting of Gloria Steinem's recent op-ed piece in The New York Times that suggested young women are wrong to think that they can "deny or escape the sexual caste system."

Many young women believe that such a caste system doesn't exist. Many volunteered they have no doubt there will be many women presidents in their lifetime.

"It's not necessarily that we're antifeminism," said Wu. "We just believe that women have, if not equal, then near-equal status. I don't think anyone really questions women's competency - at least in our generation."

At Wellesley, a single-sex college dedicated to women's empowerment, views were more mixed, though many students acknowledged that they feel more comfortable with a woman's place in society than earlier generations did.

"I didn't grow up with that struggle," said Claire Reddy, a junior from North Carolina. "I guess the idea is that younger women are taking that struggle for granted. Maybe that's true, but maybe it's [also] true that a lot of progress has been made."

Brittany Sundgren, a junior from Colorado, agreed. "We just take for granted that women can be CEOs or presidents. But our mothers and grandmothers realize how hard they had to work - and that women generally had to work."

Even at Wellesley, students say, there are many Obama supporters. But Clinton can count on at least one advantage: the sentimental favoritism for an alumna.

"Among my circle of friends we support Hillary, but I do know a lot of people who support Obama because he's more about change," said Juei Lee, a junior from Virginia. "But we support her because she's our alum and we love her."

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