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Choosing Among Generations

By David Ignatius

SAN FRANCISCO - Nobody scored a knockout victory on Super Tuesday, but it's obvious who lost: the partisan voices on the wings of the two parties who have been arguing that Campaign 2008 would be about ideological purity rather than personality.

This nominating campaign has turned out to be a battle for the center. The candidates who have succeeded have been the ones who are signaling that they will work across party lines to pass legislation and achieve political change. That is true for all of Tuesday's winners -- John McCain and Mike Huckabee on the Republican side, and Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama among the Democrats. The losers have been those with more polarizing messages, such as Mitt Romney and John Edwards.

What's increasingly obvious as this long campaign rumbles on is that the public really is fed up with the politics of division. They've been Karl Roved to the breaking point. How else to explain the strong showing of McCain this week, despite near-hysterical attacks from the likes of Rush Limbaugh and James Dobson? Republicans weren't buying it Tuesday. They preferred their social conservatism in the sunny, humane package of a Mike Huckabee.

This is a campaign about what unites Americans, but it is also highlighting some of the demographic cleavages that divide the country. Much has been written about the cross-cutting issues of race and gender among the Democrats, and Tuesday offered another episode. Obama's strong support among African-Americans was evident in Georgia and Alabama; as was Clinton's backing from Latino voters in California and Arizona.

But the most interesting demographic division in this campaign is one that's often overlooked -- not race or gender, but age. The leading candidates represent three different generations, each with a distinct style and resonance. This issue may, in fact, explain why the country is taking its time to make up its mind, and confounding predictions.

The most obvious and emotional generational appeal is Obama's. The 46-year-old senator is the bow wave of the post-baby boom generation that is now rising in politics. Watching him Tuesday night, appearing on television immediately after John McCain, it was striking just how young he looked. Even his soaring rhetoric has a generational pitch. "Our time has come, our moment is real, and change in coming to America," he said.

The Kennedy comparison is overused with Obama. But on this issue, it's entirely justified. JFK was a candidate of generational change -- of youth and "vigor," as the Kennedys liked to say. Part of what charmed America and the world in 1960 was that Jack and Jackie were so young, and marked such a break with Dwight Eisenhower's "granddad" Republicanism. America in 1960 was confident and restless enough to roll the dice and vote for a 43-year-old.

Hillary Clinton, whatever else she represents, is a classic baby boomer. More than her boomer-in-chief husband Bill, she represents the admirable aspects of her generation. She's the hardworking one, the one who prepares for the debates, the one who gets by on grit and good sense rather than charm. This generational position is at once Hillary's strength and weakness. We've elected two boomers in a row, and it would be surprising if America now jumped a generation, backward or forward. But Hillary inherits the nation's ambivalence about boomers (at least the elitist, blue-state version) and their self-indulgence and self-absorption.

Huckabee, in his way, is a classic boomer himself -- mid-South version. He plays guitar in a rock band, he diets (successfully), he embraces a spirituality that is the mega-church "Jesus Loves You" variety rather than the fire-and-brimstone Elmer Gantry version. He's the kind of baby boom male I saw this week in Tennessee -- successful in his career, comfortable with himself, upbeat about the future.

Bringing up the rear in this generational parade is John McCain. At 71, he is the last, trailing wave of the Greatest Generation. His age is comforting in one sense -- when McCain says "My friends," you feel as if you've fallen back into small-town America where it was assumed that people were your friends, even if you had never met them. A traumatized country might reach back in time for the reassurance that a president in his 70s would provide, but that's not a natural political progression.

America will have a few more weeks, and maybe months, to sort out this generational issue. The country wants to turn a page to someone in the center who can work across party lines. But do Americans want to move backward, forward, or stay in about the same place?

Copyright 2008, Washington Post Writers Group

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