The key to waging a successful presidential campaign by either Barack Obama or John McCain will be their ability to use their respective conventions to overcome generational tensions. What happens in Denver and the Twin Cities could give the nominees freedom to embrace the generational changes that will shape American politics for decades to come.
If the candidates pay proper attention to generational politics, each convention will begin with a nod to their party’s Boomers and then pivot away from the past to address, on the final night, new voters whose support they will need to win in November.
The candidates must take the lead in managing their party’s convention so that the ticket and its platform reflect the desire of the electorate to move beyond the cultural wars of the 1960s. Each party’s understanding of this generationally driven challenge will be evident in how it handles the iconic, Boomer figures demanding center stage at their conventions.
Obama, in an acknowledgement of the generational strains in his party, has agreed to Hillary Rodham Clinton's request to not only address the convention in prime time on Tuesday night, but to have her name placed in nomination the following night. In return, he has gained the agreement of former president Bill Clinton to, in effect, lead the Boomers in the Democratic Party to embrace and endorse Senator Obama's nomination on Wednesday night.
As tough as that challenge has been for Obama, the problem is more acute for John McCain. President Bush's job performance ratings are among the lowest of any president. But he remains popular with Boomer ideologues in the GOP, who are continually looking for signs that McCain has stayed from party orthodoxy. Any attempt to deny a sitting president the spotlight at their national convention, as Democrats did in keeping Lyndon Johnson from addressing their 1968 convention, will be met with cries of “I told you not to trust him” from Republican true believers.
It appears that McCain’s advisers have decided to throw cultural war red meat to the delegates with appearances by Bush and Vice President Cheney on Monday, in hopes that the electorate won’t pay too much attention until later in the week.
If history is any guide, the place where both candidates will be willing to make concessions to their party’s ideological base will be the party’s platform. Since this policy statement is debated early in the convention, with little penalty for abandoning a plank or two later in the campaign, platforms are the easiest way to throw a bone to ideological purists. The Generation X and Boomer Democratic blogosphere has previously attacked Obama for failing to adhere to hard left positions on post 9-11 issues and offshore oil drilling.
Similarly, a number of conservatives have condemned McCain's former positions on climate change, immigration, and campaign finance reform.
The choice each candidate must make is whether to use the platform debate to give the cultural warriors in their party a final opportunity to replay the political drama of the nation’s Boomer past or to use the platform debate as a “Sister Souljah” generational moment and decisively break with that kind of divisive politics.
In the end, however, there will be no better place for the two candidates to demonstrate their break with the politics of past generations than in their acceptance speeches.
The McCain campaign has signaled its intention to use their candidate’s story of personal sacrifice on behalf of the nation throughout the convention. This effort will likely culminate in an acceptance speech attempting to simultaneously distinguish his life’s experience from those of the Woodstock generation (“I was tied up at the time”) and arouse the passions of his party’s Boomer base.
The challenge, however, is how to do that that without awakening a set of related thoughts among Millennials about just how old and potentially out of touch with their generation he is. Millennials weren’t around for Woodstock, don’t care about it, and prefer that everyone “play nice” together. Passion displayed as anger turns them off. To capture a new and winning coalition in this campaign, McCain would be better off using his acceptance speech to underline his national security credentials based on a lifetime of service, both of which appeal greatly to Millennials.
Obama’s decision to deliver his acceptance speech before a large outdoor audience on the 45th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech comes with its own set of risks. Echoes of that remarkable speech are sure to arouse the passions of the liberal half of the Boomer generation. But, it will also remind viewers of the turmoil of the 60s that drove a majority of the nation to embrace the Republicans’ appeal for “law and order.”
Obama’s rhetoric will need to inspire a new generation to take the next steps toward achievement of King’s dream, without creating a backlash among the rest of the electorate that wasn’t enamored with the racial overtones of the Democratic primary campaign.
To succeed in November, both candidates will have to speak explicitly to the future and demonstrate that their campaign represents the hopes of a new generation. The country is waiting for a new leader with a new approach to guide it out of the Boomer briar patch in which it has been stuck since 1968. After the conventions, we will have a clearer idea who can best lead the country into a new era of American politics.