According to the D.C. blogosphere, Jon Huntsman is the coolest man alive. The Daily Beast asks if he’s “The Only Cool Republican.” FrumForum thinks he can “Strike Gold With Young Voters.” John Fund in the Wall Street Journal speaks of Huntsman’s “Rock ‘N Roll” persona and “cultural outreach” to the younger generation. And why not? After all, he dropped out of high school to play keyboards in a prog-rock band called “Wizard!” He liberalized his state’s liquor laws! He’s progressive on social issues!
Huntsman’s billing as 2012’s “Youth Candidate” is the kind of tag that rivals like Tim Pawlenty and Gary Johnson don’t have yet; the kind that hard-pressed primary candidates desperately need. But if he wants to keep that label, he might have to change his style.
His Jersey City announcement speech sounded passable enough, with its focus on leadership and “owning the future.” The Week even called it “Reaganesque.” Reagan, of course, was the original youth-friendly Republican. Like Huntsman, his speeches were lyrical to the ear — a major component of youth appeal. But Reagan could also sound practical and paternal, as in Nashua when he informed a certain newspaper editor that he was “paying for this microphone.” Any young person with a working father can appreciate that.
With Bachmann already carrying the social conservatives and Romney the Wall Street types, Huntsman’s “Youth Candidate” role could be the major factor to keep him relevant in this race. So he needs to play it right. Soaring rhetoric, like the kind he employed in Jersey City, is a thing of the past; so 2008. Young voters are more jaded now; more receptive to the tough, rational discourse that usually renders the GOP an angry, white old party. It’s time for Huntsman to bring out the straight talk, because, whether or not he plays along, the talk aimed at young voters in 2012 is about to get a whole lot straighter.
A group called Generation Opportunity will see to that. It is an activist organization committed to educating 18-to-29 year olds on the fiscal policies of the federal government. Its name is doe-eyed and optimistic, the kind of slogan you’d see on the door of a guidance counselor’s office. But its strategy is down-to-earth.
Generation Opportunity president Paul Conway gives cold, hard employment statistics to a demographic that will soon comprise over one-third of the U.S. electorate. A former Labor Department Chief of Staff, Conway and his thirteen employees moved into an office in Arlington, Virginia eight months ago, as the end of the 2010 midterms bled into premature coverage of the Republican primary. Sensing that the youth vote might be up for grabs in 2012, and that both parties have a shot at capturing it, they carved out a “two-fold plan” for reaching the under-30 masses. Since then, Conway’s reps have appeared at 94 major live events, doling out job stats and promoting Generation Opportunity’s social-networking pages. They’ve already racked up more than 600,000 Facebook fans, roughly four times as many as the liberal activist group DoSomething.org.
While other political activist groups try to raise voter turnout solely on college campuses, Conway pledges “full engagement with college students, non-college students, and young professionals.” He’s not just targeting the freshman hackeysack players in Art History 101. He’s also going after their senior-spring counterparts, as well as the graduated temp workers who still haven’t figured out how to use their college degrees. He’s speaking to young people in a way that most other groups haven’t dared to: without the platitudes.
“Seventy-seven percent of young people in this country are putting off a major life decision because of the economy,” Conway says, “They’re not paying their student loans. They’re not going back to school and getting more professional training. So they’re coming to some hard conclusions about how recent government decisions are affecting their lives.”
If, as Irving Kristol famously suggested, a conservative is merely a liberal who has been “mugged by reality,” then Conway is the guy in the ski mask lurking near the ATM. His group’s impact, though, is quantifiable. By the Iowa Caucus, Generation Opportunity will likely be the largest youth-based political group in cyberspace. Following its lead, the political discussion in Young America will turn categorical – less Barack Obama and more Archie Bunker.
So Huntsman should swim with the current, and start talking, levelheadedly, about his solid job-creation record. His 2006 gambit in Utah to yield 1,000 new jobs in one summer drew national headlines to the problem of youth unemployment. His state has one of the lowest unemployment rates in the country, less than half the national average. He has the credentials to not only energize young voters with his hipness, but also to appeal to their newly-formed sense of the bottom line.
He doesn’t need to rhetorically “own the future.” Bill Clinton already built a bridge there, and it burned down. Nor must he recite prose poetry from the podium to inspire millenials to the voting booth. In any other election year, ice-cold logic in an “off-the-record” speaking tone would disqualify him as the Youth Candidate. This year, it’s almost mandatory.
“We’ve had the benefit of being able to watch other activist groups like Rock the Vote, and to see what works and what doesn’t,” Conway says, “But we’re also considering things in light of our situation right now. Currently, the strategy that we’re using is the strategy that is resonating with young voters.”
Hard to argue with straight shooting.