Stuck in the middle with boomers, again

Matt Bai
National Political Columnist
Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton (Photos: Evan Vucci/AP; Andrew Harnik/AP)

Hillary Clinton has a cough. Not just that — a persistent cough. Last week the cough proved so virulent during a speech that she needed to pause for water.

It’s a wonder the markets didn’t tumble.

Clinton’s cough, first reported by NBC, led to a spate of media stories, most of which slyly purported to be about the media coverage of the cough, although they managed to leave open the possibility that Clinton, who turns 69 next month, was like one of those bygone Soviet premiers who were always seen smiling and waving about six weeks after their deaths.

Not that we know much more about the health of Donald Trump, who is 16 months older than Clinton. Last December, Trump’s longtime physician, Harold Bornstein, announced “unequivocally” that Trump would be “the healthiest individual ever elected to the presidency.” Because apparently he’s gone around exhuming all the others and performing autopsies in the dead of night.

But then last month Bornstein told NBC News that he’d actually rattled off that assessment in five minutes. I can’t help thinking here of Dr. Nick Riviera from “The Simpsons,” who once exclaimed, when described as being the only one in the room even close to being a doctor: “Stop! You’re embarrassing me!”

Anyway, none of this health business would seem very pressing if this year’s nominees weren’t quite so, you know … old. As it happens, Hillary Clinton would be the oldest Democrat ever inaugurated, and Trump would be the oldest man to assume the office, period.

Which raises a larger question that has puzzled me for many months now. How can it be that, even as millennials overtake their parents and grandparents as a share of the electorate, somehow we’re stuck with the aging boomers yet again?

If I sound frustrated about this, it’s only because I am. The baby boomers have done some wonderful things for our country — in social justice, in music, in movies and magazines and literature. They gave us cookie dough ice cream, for crying out loud.

But let’s face it: When it comes to politics, the boomers have left us a pile of wreckage unparalleled since a generation of leaders in the 1850s fumbled their way toward civil war.

The collective legacy of the ’60s generation — assuming they ever step aside and allow it to be tallied, which might or might not happen, depending on impending advances in cryogenics — includes gradual economic decline, rising inequality, a confused role in global affairs, a hateful and totally dysfunctional governing environment, a seriously endangered planet and, not incidentally, a looming crisis brought on by massive public spending on the oldest Americans.

Their most visionary political minds — and I count Bill Clinton among them — were largely thwarted or outright rejected, mainly because their solutions didn’t conform to partisan dogmas and short-term self-interest.

It’s possible that either Trump or Hillary Clinton might be the one who redeems their generation at last and is rewarded with a sprawling monument on the Mall. It’s also possible that the next installment in the “Halloween” franchise will mine some rich and untapped artistic vein.

For now, though, it’s worth asking how we ended up here again — eight short years after President Obama’s election seemed to presage an entirely new chapter in American politics.

There’s no single answer, or at least not one that I can figure out, that neatly explains the resurgence of the septuagenarian set. Trump blinded his younger rivals in the Republican field with the aura of ageless celebrity. Clinton benefited mightily from a couple of off-year wave elections that decimated the ranks of younger Democrats.

But both triumphed in part because the entire country seems to be caught up in a current of political nostalgia. Clinton consciously harks back to the good old days of the ’90s; at one point she promised to put her husband in charge of everything economic, which was about as close as she could come to saying she had devised a time machine and there was room for all of us inside.

The activist left that opposed Clinton’s candidacy is in thrall to Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, 74 and 67 respectively, both of whom champion the kind of big-government populism that defined Democratic politics in the age before “deindustrialization” and “globalization” were even part of the lexicon.

Trump, meanwhile, runs on the now famous promise to “Make America Great Again,” by which presumably he means returning it to the 1950s, with all the social regressiveness that implies. His principal and much younger rival, Ted Cruz, preached a revival of 1980s conservatism without so much as a nod to modernizing the agenda.

And maybe this last part gets to the hard truth of the matter, which is that if you’re going to affix blame for our backward-looking debate, you have to look squarely not at the tired cadre of boomers who still dominate our politics, but at the generation — my generation — that was supposed to succeed them.

Because if there’s anything like a new, 21st century vision for government and its responsibilities, no younger politician has yet tried to articulate it. Marco Rubio ran on an explicit message of generational change, but you’d be hard pressed to name a single policy that encapsulated his differences with weathered conservative orthodoxy; in the end, the change he proposed was about the age of the candidate rather than the novelty of his thinking.

Martin O’Malley was the only Democrat under 60 with the courage to take on Clinton (he’s 53), but the guy who was once among the country’s most innovative young mayors ended up running, essentially, as a Sanders alternative. If O’Malley had any compelling critique of rusty, industrial-age liberalism, he kept it to himself.

No wonder, then, we’re in a generational rut. Find me a case of a young candidate who ever won with ascendant nostalgia.

Bill Clinton assailed the liberal establishment of his party. George W. Bush argued for a new kind of conservatism. Obama, technically a boomer himself, promised an end to the toxic political culture (and then became mired in it).

New leaders win when they can point to some promising, undiscovered path ahead. If the only path is one you’ve trod before, why not hire a guide who’s already made the trip?

The age of our leaders isn’t always relevant. There are moments, I suppose, when the world changes at a predictable and manageable pace, when technology and social orders evolve in a way that makes them recognizable to everyone.

The 1980s were probably like that. Reagan governed at the zenith of broadcast television, which was a medium he had been dominating, more or less, for 20 years leading up to then. He didn’t feel out of time.

But our moment isn’t like that. And in November, we will elect a president who didn’t grow up with cellphones or email, who never dated or did back-to-school shopping online, who works hard to grasp the cultural and economic norms of a digital world but who will always be reaching back for some frame of reference.

The health outlook for either candidate, I trust, is just fine. The prognosis for our politics is another story.