Shortly before Bob Dole’s November 5 drubbing in the presidential election, the Young Republican National Federation hosted a $19.96-a-head drinks party at the Capitol Hill Club, to celebrate the “kick-off” of what it termed “the most ambitious get-out-the-youth-vote effort” in GOP history. The event — billed, somewhat ominously, as “Operation American Dream” — promised, in the words of the campaign’s chairman, “an MTV-style press conference with young people as the focus and lots of hip music.”
In its essence, the idea of the Republican Party reaching out to Generation X voters is not as ludicrous as it sounds. The myth that Bill Clinton enjoys impregnable support among young voters is just that: in 1992, voters under 30 voted more or less along the same lines as their elders, with Clinton winning a slight plurality. Since then, Clinton has fashioned himself the spokesperson for the future, while banking his own future on anti-youth initiatives like curfews, school uniforms, V-chips and teen smoking crackdowns. And so there seemed reason to believe that an aggressive GOP voter-outreach effort might, at the least, force the Democrats to proffer a semblance of interest in youth issues. I should have known better.
Operation American Dream staffers greeted guests by stuffing colossal “Whitewater’s Most Wanted” cast-of-characters posters into their jacket pockets. A table inside was lined with rows of urine-sample cups, free for the taking and festooned with both a Clinton-Gore decal and a sticker reading “Just Say ‘No’ to White House Drug Use.” Though billed as a Young Republican event, more than half the crowd of 150-odd revelers were well past the 30-year-old Generation X ceiling. The other peculiarly Republican aspect was the striking level of diversity: I counted, including myself, three non-Caucasians in the entire place. Two were handling the music, which, though I couldn’t quite place it, had a distinctly Reaganesque, mid-’80s beat.
The first celebrity politico to grace the “press conference” was Mary Matalin. Say what you want about Matalin, she still exudes a self-assured, tough-broad appeal. It’s obvious that she’s a pro, and her requisite platitudes notwithstanding — “I love this age group — I talk to them absolutely every time I can” — it’s hard not to feel for her, to wonder why she isn’t out spinning real reporters on her candidate’s debate performance, rather than emceeing this sad little Beltway fundraiser.
She let fly a few wisecracks, but got serious when discussing Clinton’s “Big Lie Campaign.” “It just makes me so mad,” she said, that Clinton got away with calling Dole and the Republicans “anti-education.” She rattled off statistics that showed the Republicans had set records for spending on Head Start, college loan programs and everything in between. Of course they did — this year. In 1995, they tried to gut the same programs, which is why Clinton vetoed the budget, which is why the government shut down, which is why the Republicans restored all that funding in 1996. Matalin didn’t mention these details.
Rachel Campos, the lone Republican on MTV’s 1994 edition of “The Real World,” spoke next, followed by Jack Kemp’s daughter Jennifer. She has the same polished exuberance of her father and it was impossible not to listen to her. A former schoolteacher, Kemp bashed those old bogeymen, the liberal media and the National Education Association. She insisted that when Dole skewers the union that represents public school teachers, he isn’t actually attacking the teachers themselves. I suppose it requires the same leap of faith needed to believe that Dole can advocate eliminating the Department of Education and still intend to increase education spending.
None of this rhetoric seemed to arouse anyone there, which was heartening. Kellyanne Fitzpatrick, the 29-year-old GOP pollster and third consecutive female knockout of the evening, appeared next in a semi-live satellite address. She alighted into the stock GOP anti-drug message, which increasingly seems the silliest issue on which Republicans can base their appeal to youth, many of whom, according to the statistics Dole himself recites on command, have lit up already. Nine out of 10 of these young voters, according to recent polls, also support more spending on public education and less on defense.
The Republicans, when it comes down to it, have no interest — or need — to lure Seattle slackers into the big tent. Need proof? They launched this purportedly epochal “get-out-the-vote” campaign three hours after the deadline for registering for the election had passed. At one point during the event, Matalin looked into the cameras and said, “Now, I know, people say that if you’re under 30 and you’re not a liberal, you don’t have a heart, and if you’re over 30 and you’re not a conservative, you don’t have a brain. Well, well, I don’t think so.”
“As soon as you get a job,” she said, “you’ll be a conservative.” The implication was subtle, but irresistible: the longer the jobless, the dispossessed, the poor and, well, the young stay outside of the political process, the better the fortunes of the Republican Party. Which is why, as their presidential candidate faced a coming electoral bloodbath, as they continued to beat the drum of liberal conspiracies, as more young Americans decided to tune out politics, perhaps this time for good, the young Republicans continued to laugh and drink and chow meatballs and chicken skewers, long after the TV camera lights had been turned off.
Romesh Ratnesar is a reporter/researcher for The New Republic.