CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- It was like a flashback to the 1980s Thursday afternoon when Jesse Jackson and Michael Dukakis appeared in the press filing center at the Democratic National Convention. A small swarm of reporters and photographers hovered around the two former presidential candidates, neither of whom had a speaking role at the convention, for reasons obvious enough: They remind Democrats of their years in the wilderness, when Republicans Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush controlled the White House for 12 years.
Jackson ran a left-wing protest campaign in 1984, but never really threatened the Democrat establishment's choice, former Vice President Walter Mondale, who went on to lose a historic landslide to Reagan. Dukakis was the party's designated loser in 1988, his cold technocratic style failing to excite anyone as he was crushed by Bush in another massive blowout. Kids studying this stuff in history class nowadays may have trouble understanding the politics of that era before their birth, and know no more of Jackson and Dukakis than a 50-year-old knows of Harold Stassen or Adlai Stevenson. The young have no memory of the awful taint of defeat -- the reputation for outright political incompetence -- that clung to the Democratic Party from Jimmy Carter onward into the 1990s. Today's 25-year-old remembers, instead, being a senior in high school when George W. Bush was re-elected amid the controversies of the Iraq War. In all likelihood, that 25-year-old wasn't too crazy about Bush or the war, and was quite eager to vote for Barack Obama in 2008.
One thing most conspicuously missing from Obama's re-election campaign is the excitement of younger voters who four years ago embraced his promises of Hope and Change with the kind of wild enthusiasm college kids usually reserve for wet T-shirt contests at keg parties. Karl Rove pointed out in the Wall Street Journal that Obama's 2-to-1 margin (66 percent to 32 percent for John McCain) among under-30 votes in 2008 has now, according to some polls, shriveled to as few as eight percentage points (49 percent to 41 percent for Mitt Romney). This week, Republicans suspected that such lagging enthusiasm was the real reason for the change of venue that relocated Obama's acceptance speech from a 70,000-seat stadium to a 20,000-seat arena, which Democrats officially attributed to weather-related concerns. If indeed the problem was a lack of warm bodies to fill the seats, it is particularly the young whose absence is remarkable. How many college kids would sign up to ride a bus to an Obama speech, even if the bus ride were free?
Given how the lingering recession has negatively impacted the career prospects of youth, we can hardly blame them for having abandoned their erstwhile Messiah. As Rove noted, the official unemployment rate for workers ages 18-29 is now 12.7 percent and, calculating in the 1.7 million young people who have become so discouraged by unemployment that they've dropped out of the work force, the rate is actually 16.7 percent. Gone forever is that giddy sense of unlimited possibility with which the young followed Obama's every step during the 2008 campaign, replaced by a sense of failure, a boundless potential tragically unfulfilled.
The convention itself seemed to reflect the graying of the Democrat dream. College student Cody Holt compared the roster of speakers at the DNC to the speakers at last week's GOP convention and discovered that the Democrat speakers' average age was 59.7, more than 10 years older than the Republican speakers, whose average age was 48.9. Whereas the GOP offered the 42-year-old Paul Ryan as Romney's running mate and chose the charismatic young Marco Rubio to introduce their candidate, Democrats offered 70-year-old Vice President Joe Biden and gave the introductory spot to 68-year-old Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin.
Biden's speech was a re-hash of the Democrats' attacks on Romney as a heartless capitalist who "was willing to let Detroit go bankrupt," and who would "cause Medicare to go bankrupt by 2016." Biden accused Romney of wanting to "raise taxes on middle-class families by $2,000 in order to pay for another trillion dollars in new tax cuts for the very wealthy." Biden's claims inspired nary a hint of skepticism from the liberal journalists and broadcasters who spent last week relentlessly fact-checking everything said at the GOP convention -- "fact-checking" having become, as the Wall Street Journal's James Taranto says, an insidious new form of propaganda.
Biden and Obama touted the 2009 taxpayer bailouts of the auto industry as both necessary and successful. "In our first days in office, General Motors and Chrysler were on the verge of liquidation," said Biden. "If the President didn't act immediately, there wouldn't be an auto industry left to save." (Hello, fact-checkers? Was this true?) Obama offered his own version of the same theme: "We're making things again. I've met workers in Detroit and Toledo who feared they'd never build another American car. Today, they can't build them fast enough, because we reinvented a dying auto industry that's back on top of the world." (C'mon, fact-checkers, aren't there some actual numbers about this stuff?)
The auto-industry bailout was, along with the withdrawal from Iraq and the death of Osama bin Laden, quite nearly all the actual success Obama was able or willing to claim in his acceptance speech. Notably, the president mentioned his signature health-care legislation -- Obamacare -- only in a few indirect references. The record high budget deficits? The failure of his $800 billion stimulus to reduce unemployment rates below 8 percent? No, he said nothing about that. Instead, Democrats cheered as Obama promised a future where good things will happen.
"If you believe that new plants and factories can dot our landscape; that new energy can power our future; that new schools can provide ladders of opportunity to this nation of dreamers; if you believe in a country where everyone gets a fair shot, and everyone does their fair share, and everyone plays by the same rules, then I need you to vote this November."
The delegates who cheered this incantation of belief -- a quasi-religious faith in the efficacy of liberal policies -- were mostly old enough to remember the Democrats' wilderness years of the 1980s, and they clearly believe that Obama's oratory still has enough persuasive magic to carry them to victory in November. If Obama does win, it will be despite the declining value of Hope among the young.
And if Obama loses?
Well, the 1980s were pretty good years to be young, even if they were very bad years to be a Democrat.