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The Lost Generation: The Democrat's Demographic Problem

03/30/2015 07:09 am ET | Updated May 30, 2015
Yana Paskova via Getty Images

On the day that Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid announced his retirement, I got an email from Ted Strickland.

Now unless you're from Ohio, or unless you're a real political junkie, the name might sound familiar but you probably can't quite place it. Strickland, an ordained Methodist minister and former Democratic Congressman from southeast Ohio, was a one-term governor. He lost, just barely, to John Kasich in 2010. Ted was writing to tell me that he is running for the U. S. Senate. Oh, and he wants money.

And it was at that moment that it occurred to me just what a generational problem the Democratic Party has these days.

Don't get me wrong: I think Ted is great. Ohio, and especially Ohio schools, would be better off had he been re-elected. I have an "I Miss Ted" bumper-sticker on my car. But Ted is 73 years old, and at this point he is probably the presumptive Democratic front-runner to face Senator Rob Portman.

As Hillary Clinton's email kerfuffle unfolded, several commentators wondered out loud who else might run for the Democratic nomination should Hillary's train derail -- a possibility greater than nil, given the Clinton's track-record. The party has no bench, these folks observed.

It isn't simply that the Republican field is crowded with candidates, all of whom at this point have a shot at winning the nomination, however. Notice the age of these candidates: Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Scott Walker -- all under 50. Rand Paul, just over 50. At 62, Jeb Bush is the old man in the field. Hillary Clinton will turn 68 later this year.

We have heard a great deal about the Democratic Party's demographic advantages -- how it appeals more to younger, more diverse voters of the sort now preparing to boycott the state of Indiana. These voters are the future, and the angry old white guys who form the core of the GOP are fast fading away.

But there is a troubling paradox here. The party of angry old white guys have elected youngsters -- like Bobby Jindal and Nikki Haley, both 43 -- while the party of youth and diversity has put Jerry Brown, 76, in the California Governor's office.

It wasn't always thus, of course. The Republican Party has always been the party of old white guys -- though surely not as angry and irrational as they are now -- and they elected old white guys like Dwight Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan (who was born six years before John Kennedy) and nominated Bob Dole (who was 73 when he ran for the presidency in 1996) and John McCain, who is a full quarter-century older than Barack Obama.

Without pressing the case too hard, I think this demographic paradox is a long-term result of the Reagan Revolution. Here's what I mean.

The rising stars of the Republican Party were in college when the Gipper was in the White House. For them he was and remains an inspirational, messianic figure (and I'm not sure I'm using that latter term metaphorically!). Reagan's policies and their results (most of which have proved a bust) matter far less to them than the emotional pull he exerted on them at that moment in their lives. College students helped create the Cult of Reagan, and in this sense, what Kennedy was for Bill Clinton's generation, Reagan was for Scott Walker's.

Even as the Reagan administration was attacking funding for higher education, students swelled the ranks of the College Republicans. Those junior Republicans in the 1980s then moved into electoral politics in the 1990s -- county commissioners races and state house contests -- and moved up into House and Senate seats and into governor's mansions.

Meanwhile, the effect of the Reagan years on progressive students was to drive many of them away from party politics altogether. They gravitated toward non-profits and advocacy groups and other forms of political opposition, not necessarily toward the Democratic Party. My own sense is that the party itself reciprocated the indifference. I've been on college campuses since the early 1990s and have been struck that the party lost interest in organizing and training students. In fall 2004, for example, the College Dems at Ohio State University, one of the largest campuses in the country, had fewer than 30 registered members. Remember that John Kerry then lost Ohio to George Bush by just over 100,000 votes.

The political dynamics of the 1980s has created a missing generation of Democratic politicians who, having started at the local level, would now be poised to take the national stage. This is the generational problem that will haunt the party for, well, the next generation.

I wish Ted Strickland all the best in his race to replace Rob Portman (whose claim to fame is as one of the architects of George W. Bush's economic policies). But as baseball season commences, I'll wonder what happened to the Party's farm system and continue to worry over the depth of the bench.

In the fall, Steven Conn will be the W. E. Smith Professor of History at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio.