Kerrey, Clinton trying to win under-50 generation for Democratic Party

October 07, 1991|By Paul West | Paul West,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- Is the world's oldest political party young enough to rock and roll?

Bob Kerrey and Bill Clinton think so. The Nebraska senator and Arkansas governor kicked off their presidential campaigns last week to the throbbing bass beat of Bruce Springsteen, John Cougar Mellencamp and Fleetwood Mac.

In case the music didn't get the message across, they generously sprinkled the word "generation" throughout their announcement speeches, like fresh ground pepper at a yuppie restaurant.

Mr. Kerrey, 48, and Mr. Clinton, 45, are the Democrats' new-age candidates for 1992. Each wants to become America's first president of, by and for the under-50 generation, whose votes will shape national politics well into the next century.

Both men speak of renewal and change and the dawn of a new millennium. Better schools, they say, are the key to America's fate in the world trade wars. They're for economic growth, better health care and, on the subject of abortion, a woman's right to choose.

Most of all, they say they're worried about the forgotten middle class and the kind of world we're handing to our kids.

"Next year, my son will graduate from high school. What kind of legacy will he inherit?" Mr. Kerrey wonders.

"I refuse to stand by and let our children become part of the first generation to do worse than their parents," says Mr. Clinton.

On a personal level, they have struggled in their private lives with the same problems that ordinary Americans face. Mr. Kerrey is a divorced father who juggles his schedule to spend time with his teen-agers on weekends; Mr. Clinton, whose wife is a practicing attorney, confessed recently that his marriage "has not been perfect."

Despite adopting the same generational theme, these two handsome, if still obscure, presidential contenders are a study in contrasts who arrived at their presidential launching pads, just three days apart, by very different paths.

Mr. Kerrey grew up in relative comfort in heartland Nebraska, a "suburban white boy," as he put it once, "who had never realized that there was suffering and pain outside of my life." He went to college in his hometown and studied to be a druggist.

Mr. Clinton's father died before he was born and he was sent to impoverished rural Arkansas to live with his grandparents and great-grandparents, who had an outhouse. A politician from boyhood, he left home to attend college in Washington, D.C., became a Rhodes scholar and got a law degree from Yale.

Vietnam changed both of their lives. Mr. Kerrey, while leading an elite unit of Navy SEALs, had his lower leg blown off in 1969. Awarded the Medal of Honor by President Richard M. Nixon, he came home to register anti-war voters in the 1970 election.

Mr. Clinton, who never served in the military, got his first taste of presidential politics as Texas coordinator of anti-war candidate George S. McGovern's 1972 campaign. The next year, just as Mr. Kerrey was starting a career in the restaurant business, Mr. Clinton began running for office.

Seventeen primary and general election campaigns later, he is embarking on the biggest race of his life. Having aborted a presidential bid four years ago, he toured the country for months before finally deciding to go.

Mr. Kerrey, as instinctive and impulsive as Mr. Clinton is cerebral and cautious, seems positively hasty by comparison. A political iconoclast, he has been elected to public office just twice and is offering himself for the nation's highest job less than halfway through his freshman term as senator. After deciding in late August that he would run, he wanted to announce his decision three days later, according to a close adviser; he finally gave in to aides who begged for three weeks to organize a campaign.

Mr. Kerrey's candidacy is based largely on personality and what some view as a sort of shy charisma reminiscent of Robert F. Kennedy. What isn't clear yet is whether he has anything to say. Although he claims that "I know how to make the economy grow better than it is right now," he isn't prepared to offer details.

Mr. Clinton, while no less telegenic in the eyes of his fans, is making substance the basis of his candidacy and "has eight policies for every two problems," according to the Economist.

On issues that have nothing to do with generational concerns, he and Mr. Kerrey are sometimes at odds. At the time of the Senate vote on the use of military force against Iraq, Mr. Clinton said he would have supported President Bush. Mr. Kerrey voted "no."

Their differences and dissimilarities may illustrate why it is so difficult to generalize about members of the generation born after 1940 and why they have proved such an elusive target for politicians.

Some Democrats question whether such an overt appeal to younger voters is a wise strategy for 1992.

Mr. Kerrey's attempt to consign Mr. Bush to the past, by calling him a "proud man of the Cold War generation," may fall flat against an energetic president who appears far younger than his 67 years.

Others wonder whether the Clinton-Kerrey approach will pay off in the Democratic primaries, where independent and Republican-leaning younger voters have never turned out in large numbers.

Instead, the favorite could wind up being the third of the party's Big Three presidential candidates, also a member of the Vietnam generation, but one who finds himself on the other side of the 50-year-old age divide: Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa, who missed being born in the 1940s by only six weeks.

Mr. Harkin, who ferried jets in and out of Vietnam for the Navy, has been belting out the old-time liberal standards that Democratic primary voters have found irresistible for decades. When he announced his candidacy last month, he did it to the strains of "Happy Days Are Here Again," the theme song of Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal of the 1930s.

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