Strategists for Bush and Clinton ponder a 'generation gap' race 22-year age difference may be a top issue.

April 24, 1992|By Los Angeles Times

The likely fall campaign between President Bush and Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton will be the first electoral collision between the two generations that have dominated American life for the past 45 years.

At age 67, Mr. Bush is, in all probability, the last who will be drawn from the "GI generation," presidents who fought as young men in World War II, manned the barricades of the Cold War and who have held the Oval Office without interruption since former President Kennedy captured the presidency more than 31 years ago.

If Mr. Clinton, 45, holds on to win the Democratic race, he would become the first presidential nominee from the baby boom -- the 76-million-member generation that has revolutionized America's social mores, but not yet exerted the political influence many of its members have considered their birthright since the turbulent 1960s.

The 22-year age difference between Mr. Bush and Mr. Clinton would be the largest such gulf between two presidential candidates in this century. It is a "generation gap" that could shape the debate.

To a considerable extent, Republican strategists believe, Mr. Clinton's greatest challenge is overcoming questions of personal morality and honesty rooted in such baby-boomer experiences as the use of drugs, attempts to avoid the Vietnam draft and the sexual revolution.

"Clinton is a guy who enjoyed the stereotypical baby boomer lifestyle," said one senior Republican strategist familiar with the Bush campaign's thinking. "Probably by definition that will cause him problems."

For Mr. Bush, by contrast, the most pressing task may be to convince voters that he has the vision to lead the nation beyond the Cold War challenges that molded his generation. Mr. Clinton took his first broad swing at that target in a major address Wednesday, arguing that Mr. Bush's views on environmental issues were outdated and "shaped in another era, when the world facedother threats."

At a time when most voters see Washington as bereft of innovative responses to the nation's problems, the argument that Mr. Bush is trapped in the past worries some Republicans. "I think that is really behind a lot of Bush's decline in the polls -- that people sense he is not as creative, not as relevant when it comes to post-Cold War issues," says conservative strategist Jeffrey Bell, the author of "Populism and Elitism," a new book on the role of cultural divisions in American politics.

Notwithstanding Mr. Clinton's remarks this week, neither the president nor his challenger has yet stressed appeals to generational solidarity -- or a generational critique of their opponent. But because each so exemplifies the experiences of his era, many analysts believe that a race between them would inevitably be colored by contrasting generational imagery -- with the Republicans tarring Mr. Clinton with the excesses of the 1960s and the Democrats painting Mr. Bush as unable to adapt to the post-Cold War realities of the 1990s.

From the start, Mr. Clinton has positioned his candidacy to blunt these repeated GOP attacks on Democrats as cultural elitists contemptuous of middle-class values; he has broken from liberal dogma to support the death penalty and demand greater "personal responsibility" from recipients of government aid, such as welfare.

In their internal discussions, Clinton aides are weighing two lines of defense against the cultural assault they expect from the GOP. One is to draw a different boundary that puts Mr. Clinton in the American mainstream and Mr. Bush outside.

This theme would attempt to portray Mr. Clinton as a product of "the real America" where lives are typically messier than in the Connecticut suburbs where Mr. Bush was reared.

The second option under consideration is for Mr. Clinton to link his own experiences to the broader evolution of the baby boom generation from protesters to parents. "The key for Bill Clinton is not so much identifying with the generational experience in Vietnam, but the generational experience since Vietnam," said Stanley B. Greenberg, Mr. Clinton's pollster.

"If Clinton can get away with saying George Bush is old and doesn't get it anymore, there's great power in that," says one well-placed Republican operative.

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