In the 1993 movie, Groundhog Day, self-centered TV weathercaster, Phil Connors (Bill Murray) is doomed to continuously repeat the events of his life. He finally ends the never-ending cycle and wins the love of his life when he finds the courage to break free of the personal limitations of his past. Like Phil Connors, many Washington pundits and politicians act as if they and the country are destined to keep on reliving the battle over health care from the Clinton era. But it’s not 1993 and it’s finally time to break the Groundhog Day pattern of American politics.
The United States has moved to a new political era driven by the emergence of America’s next civic generation, Millennials (born 1982-2003), and marked by a new pattern of partisan identification and changed attitudes. Strategies that may have been useful nearly two decades ago are not likely to be effective now. Failure to recognize these changes by adhering to old and worn out approaches, in fact, will be counterproductive.
One thing that has changed since the early 1990s is that the American electorate is no longer evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats. In 1994, according to the Pew Research Center, an equal number of voters identified as or leaned to the Democrats and Republicans (44% each). Now Pew shows an electorate in which half of the electorate, or slightly more call themselves or lean to the Democrats and only a third identify as or lean to the Republicans. Millennials identify as Democrats over Republicans by an even larger margin (56% vs. 30%).Moreover, the U.S. electorate is now more open to governmental activity and economic intervention, more positive toward government, and less driven by moralistic fears on social issues than it was on the eve of the Gingrich revolution in 1994.
Unfortunately, many inside the Beltway seem intent on reliving 1993 rather than moving to the new Millennial civic era. For Republicans and conservatives, who see resistance to change and derailing Obama administration initiatives as the way back to political power, this isn’t surprising. After all, failure to pass health care reform in the first two years of the Clinton administration contributed to the GOP sweep in the 1994-midterm elections. Republicans are hoping that, as in Groundhog Day, history will repeat itself. But for Democrats to act like it’s 1993 is truly surprising. The results of this behavior are already worrisome and could soon become disastrous.
Recent Gallup Poll data suggests Obama’s job approval levels among 18-29 year olds (primarily Millennials) has fallen from 71% to 60%. Given the solidly Democratic party identification and liberal political attitudes of Millennials, this decline most likely stems from disappointment that the president and congressional Democrats have not yet delivered on a campaign message built around change and reform. Certainly the decline is not based on distress that the president is pushing change too far or too fast.
This increased disappointment with the outcome of the first seven months of the Obama administration among Millennials (and other Democratically-oriented groups) is reflected in changes in the Daily Kos tracking poll’s generic congressional vote. Since June the Democratic lead over the Republicans has declined from a high of 14-percentage points to just 6. Almost none of this decline in the Democratic margin has come from an increased preference for the GOP. In fact, the overall percentage favoring the Republicans is actually down a point or two since May and June. Instead, virtually all of the change has come because of a decline in support for the Democrats and an increase in the percentage saying they are not sure. And, in turn, most of that is produced by increased indecision among Democratic identifiers and within demographic groups inclined toward the Democrats. In all, it appears that the biggest threat facing the Democrats is not from Republicans, but from disenchanted and disaffected voters within the groups that gave Barack Obama the presidency and Democrats a large congressional majority in the last two elections.
In the new civic era that America is entering, suggestions by conservatives that Barack Obama and the Democrats move to the right or appeal to seniors rather than the rising Millennial Generation are at best misguided and at worst dangerous. Instead, it’s time for Washington Democrats to leave Groundhog Day 1993 behind, start acting like Democrats, and redeem the promises that made them the majority party.
One way to do that is to pass meaningful healthcare reform legislation. That would be a fitting memorial to Edward M. Kennedy, the Democratic Lion of the Senate. It would also advance the fortunes of the party he so dearly loved.