Bill Clinton Rocked the Vote, Now it's Rocking Him - Rolling Stone
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Bill Clinton Rocked the Vote, Now it’s Rocking Him

Young Democrats are turning their back on the president and politics

Bill Clinton

Bill Clinton

PAM PRICE/AFP/Getty Images

Casey greenfield remembers the first time she saw Bill Clinton in person. A volunteer on the candidate’s issues staff early in the summer of 1992, Greenfield filed into a Little Rock, Ark., government building to see the governor respond to the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in the Planned Parenthood vs. Casey abortion case. The Yale sophomore expected what she calls a political waffle. After all, abortion is the most divisive political issue in the nation, and the court’s decision was complicated, both affirming and restricting a woman’s right to abortion.

Instead, Greenfield saw Clinton give an “eloquent, logical and heartfelt speech on the sacredness of life and the fundamental right of a woman to choose,” Greenfield says. “He went out on a limb to fulfill what seemed like a moral imperative to him. I actually cried.”

Greenfield’s reverence for the man who would be president survived Clinton’s early backpedaling following the election. She defended his embrace of such conservative Democratic power brokers as Lloyd Bentsen and Les Aspin and stuck with Clinton through his major-league vacillation on gays in the military. She stayed the course even though everyone she knew “was coming up with these self-satisfying smirks, saying, ‘Nyah, nyah, nyah. What do you think of your hero now?'” 

Greenfield finally got off the bus, however, when Clinton seemed to take a seat more often than a stand. That day came when the president refused to stick with Kimba Wood, the second nominee he proposed for U.S. attorney general. Like Zoë Baird, the nominee who preceded her, Wood had hired an illegal alien as her child’s nanny. But unlike Baird, she had kept meticulous salary and tax records and followed the letter of what at the time had been the law.

“Clinton dumped her,” says a disillusioned Greenfield, “not because she had done anything wrong but because she presented a potentially difficult political situation. Here was the candidate whom I had believed in, and now he was running away. It made me think to myself, ‘Who is this person?'”

Clearly, Greenfield’s question is one that even Clinton’s most ardent supporters are asking. His election saw the largest number of 18- to 24-year-old voters since 18-year-olds got the vote in 1972. It also inspired hopes for a rebirth of ’60s-style political idealism led by young people. Like Greenfield, many dropped everything to volunteer for Clinton’s campaign. Yet those hopes lasted about as long as it took Fleetwood Mac to finish singing, “Don’t stop thinking about tomorrow,” on inauguration night. For those young people who bothered to vote this past November, the election provided an opportunity to give Clinton and his party something between a collective yawn and a raspberry, dashing the Democrats’ hopes to reclaim the twentysomething vote.

In many ways the youth vote in 1994 proved, in David Byrne’s words, “the same as it ever was.” Ever since baby boomers won 18- to 21-year-olds the vote, young people have been slacker citizens. People under the age of 30 consistently vote in the smallest numbers of any age group, and every generation seems to be worse than the last. The percentage of voting 18- to 24-year-olds edged up to about 37 percent in 1992, at least in part as a result of the extraordinary efforts made by Clinton to reach out to young people via MTV, the Rock the Vote drive and other nontraditional politically minded media. But that number dwindled to 16 percent last year. While voting percentages always fall off during off-year elections, the youth turnout in ’94 was far worse than any other. In 1992,18- to 29-year-olds made up approximately 21 percent of the voting public; last year, they formed a paltry 13 percent.

Ironically for the dispirited Democrats, the minuscule turnout was actually good news. The closer that one looks at the numbers, the more pissed off at Clinton and company young people appear to be. While one exit poll had them splitting their vote evenly between Democrats and Republicans, extensive telephone polling shows that young people moved into the Republican column in far greater numbers than any other age group. Only 28 percent of those polled by the Times Mirror organization expect to vote for Clinton in 1996 — only slightly more than those who say they plan on voting for a now-nonexistent third party.

Another poll found that Americans under 30 were so disenchanted that more than 60 percent of them said they hoped for the formation of a third party. The Doonesbury-inspired perception of Clinton as a 6-foot, 220-pound waffle no doubt hurts him with all voters but nowhere more so than with young people. According to Democratic analyst Mark Steitz, this generation “wants heroes.” Historian Michael Kazin explains that young people look to political personalities who are going to help them in the future: “Clinton seemed like a positive, future-looking force to clean up the mess in 1992, but now. . .the cynicism has deepened.” Indeed, some of the most devoted Clintonites — young people who either volunteered for or were eventually hired by the administration in 1992 — are wondering if he has sufficient backbone to merit their continued trust and support. Clinton’s need to be “Mr. Consensus Man. . .his inability to tell people, ‘Shut up, I’m going to do what I want,'” is his most important failing with her generation, says Greenfield. Twenty-seven-year-old Cari Bradsell, who volunteered for the Clinton campaign in South Carolina, echoes this view, adding that “defending Bill Clinton is getting harder and harder to do.” Bradsell worries that as long as Clinton “keeps doing stupid things like his cave-in to Newt [Gingrich] on the middle-class tax cut,” her generation will end up living under Republican rule for the next 20 years.

It’s not Clinton’s agenda for the nation that disappoints these erstwhile supporters but rather his unwillingness to stick to it when the going gets rough. Twenty-six-year-old Sarah Rose, who worked for Clinton and a variety of Florida Democratic candidates in 1992, now worries that the president “doesn’t know where he’s going. He doesn’t seem to have a core. When the issues get tough to defend, he seems to take a dive.”

For John Kroger, Clinton has provided a different kind of disappointment. The 28-year-old law student sees Clinton’s 1992 campaign as a case of false advertising. Kroger joined the Clinton campaign because, he says, he expected Clinton to govern as a New Democrat who would focus exclusively on bread-and-butter issues designed to reach across party lines to conservative white males — traditional Democrats who had abandoned the party to vote for Reagan. Kroger says he expected Clinton to take on the established powers in Washington and hoped to see the president “back term limits for Congress, chop funding for the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities in half and find some programs to actually eliminate.”

In Kroger’s eyes, Clinton’s early strategic decisions doomed his presidency with the American middle class. The president and his party should have pushed for a tougher crime bill, cuts in congressional staffs and a tax cut early on, says Kroger, ruefully adding that instead, “within six months, they forfeited everything we fought for and confirmed everyone’s fears of what Democrats were really like.” After serving as a policy analyst and speechwriter in the Treasury Department, Kroger decided to quit the administration to go to law school. The ex-Marine says, “I left because, quite frankly, I didn’t think it worth the taxpayers’ money to have me on the payroll for a president who was letting the country down.”

Of course, not all the Clinton crusaders have become disenchanted. Many loyalists blame anyone but, ticking off “Washington,” “special interests” or the “Establishment” as the causes of the president’s unpopularity. The most popular villain by far, however, is the media. Ethan Zindler, a 25-year-old Georgetown senior who helped craft Clinton’s youth media strategy during the campaign, says that “the media have been unfair” to Clinton. “I worked in national service, and most people don’t even know it exists,” says Zindler. This has turned off young people who remain unaware of all that Clinton and company have done for them, Zindler says. “It has made me a lot more cynical to see how much he has accomplished and then see the voters kick the crap out of him for ‘not getting things done.'”

Twenty-seven-year-old Nancy Bagley, who left a job working for Lorne Michaels at Saturday Night Live for the opportunity to work on the Clinton campaign, shares Zindler’s perspective. “I’m angry about the administration’s inability to get its message out,” says a spirited Bagley. “The climate in Washington was real mean and cruel.” Minutes after hanging up, Bagley calls back to say that the very act of writing an article about disaffected twentysomethings in Rolling Stone is an example of media irresponsibility. “Articles like this one,” she insists, “are the reason that people my age feel the way they do.”

Can Clinton fix this mess? Should he bother? Upon closer examination, one is struck by how much more divides young people than unites them. How can you generalize about tens of millions of people who don’t have much more in common than a taste for rolling in the mud to Green Day? “The problem with young people,” says Michael Kazin, “is that you can have amazing differences based on class. Rural young people can be very Republican, and urban young people can be just as liberal and Democratic.”

Nevertheless, even though young people may disagree ideologically, they — much like senior citizens — have certain common interests. (Can anyone recall a candidate offering to gut Social Security recently?) Election analyst Curtis Gans identifies a series of issues — abortion, national service and education — that can cut across party lines and recapture the enthusiasm that excited young voters in 1992. Others believe that government spending can serve as a rallying point for generational warfare. A group of young politicos has organized a new Washington lobbying group called Lead or Leave in the hopes of uniting young people to fight to reduce the deficit. They argue — as did Thomas Jefferson — that one generation has no right to burden another with its reckless spending.

The problem is persuading young people that they can actually make a difference. Recent surveys of young people, such as a poll of 237,777 college freshmen, reveal a group — the largest in the survey’s 29-year history — who believes politics in this country is basically a waste of time. By this account, the higher-than-average 1992 turnout was an anomalous blip. Given such cynicism, Clinton’s strategists must consider whether it even makes sense to try to fashion an appeal to the youth vote. Many of Clinton’s defenders in the youth camp blame the disaffection of their own generation on unrealistic expectations. One twentysomething White House aide complains that young people, even more than the rest of the public, “want everything for nothing. They want it all done now, done fast, and they don’t want to pay for it. There is no real tolerance or recognition that change is immensely difficult.” Twenty-four-year-old Harvard senior Kate Frucher, who was the Clinton campaign’s national student coordinator, concedes that no administration could live up to the hype. “We thought our ideas were going to change the world,” Frucher says. “But you can’t effect that kind of change in a democratic society in just two years.” Adds one former Clinton volunteer: “[When] people my age elect a new president, we think we should have a chicken in every pot and an abortion clinic on every corner.”

The Reagan-Bush years, moreover — the only political touchstone most young people had before Clinton — helped destroy the notion of public service as a noble calling. And the staggering deficits racked up in those years, which erode the ability of any progressive government to fund innovative jobs programs or meaningful welfare reform, have crippled the Clinton administration’s options for attempting to rekindle what idealism remained. As 27-year-old Nicholas Butterworth, who dropped his punk-rock band, Dungbeetle, to do direct mail for the Clinton campaign, puts it: “We grew up thinking it was pretty easy for Reagan. All he did was snap his fingers, and terrible things happened. It’s a lot easier, it turns out, to wreck an economy than to rebuild one.”

This is not to say we are dealing with an entire generation of phlegmatic Beavises and Butt-heads. Nearly half of people 18 to 24 years old say that they volunteer, according to the Independent Sector, an umbrella group of volunteer organizations. But two years of Clintonite incompetence on top of 12 years of Reaganite malevolence have helped drain whatever faith in the political system may have survived young voters’ high-school civics classes.

Perhaps the new Republican majority, with its plans to cut back on student aid and the national-service program, as well as curtail abortion counseling, will force young people into realizing that political participation, however heartbreaking, is a necessary evil in a country where the advantages of economic opportunity are increasingly restricted to the privileged few. The same survey that found freshmen so politically apathetic also found their doubts about affording a four-year education at an all-time high. Might not Bill Clinton’s college-tuition tax credit be a proposal worth fighting for?

Given how nasty, venal and stage-managed our politics has become, “it’s perfectly understandable that so many young people are turned off and tuned out,” says Ricki Seidman, the new head of Rock the Vote. “But the result of young people not voting or even caring about politics is a political system that doesn’t care about them either.” History demonstrates that to be politically powerless in America is generally not a comfortable position to occupy. To be there on purpose is just plain dumb. 

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