Ah, the blush of youth. Twenty-five years younger than his opponent, the 47-year-old Barack Obama benefited at the polls from his youthfulness, and it will make his honeymoon all the more ardent.
If race ended up a no-show in the election, age played a bigger role than expected. The Obama campaign openly exploited it in an ad noting that John McCain came to Washington in 1982 and doesn’t use e-mail. The e-mail hit may have been unfair; McCain has difficulty typing because of his Vietnam injuries. But the evocation of 1982 made the point cleanly enough: If you’re under age 26, McCain has been in Washington longer than you’ve been alive.
The persistent line of attack against McCain for being “erratic” evoked an old man lurching confusedly. The signature Obama put-down of McCain for being “out of touch” had an added resonance against a 72-year-old opponent. Both the Obama theme of change and the McCain theme of experience were proxies, in a sense, for age. The argument boiled down to, in the French scholar Henri Estienne’s wistful aphorism, “If youth knew; if age could.”
The much-discussed Bradley effect didn’t show up Nov. 4, but a Father Time effect did. Age was a factor for 39 percent of voters, and McCain got wiped out among them 66 percent to 32 percent. McCain bested Obama among the 60 percent of voters who said age wasn’t a factor.
This isn’t fair to McCain, who exhibited his characteristic hyperactive energy on the campaign trail. If he was erratic, it wasn’t because he was old. Yet, there was a sense in which his moment had passed, that a freshness that imbued his 2000 primary run with a manic excitement had been lost.
McCain’s rapscallion personality seemed caught in a rut. He said “my friends” so often, it hurt the ears. With McCain, there apparently is no such thing as a new joke. Even after his loss, he told Jay Leno he was sleeping like a baby — waking up every two hours and crying. He’d repeatedly used the same line about his 2000 defeat in the Republican primaries.
McCain never could match Obama’s hipness or physical prowess. Ronald Reagan proved you don’t have to be young to capture the youth vote, but it helps. The techniques and the tone with which the Obama campaign courted young voters — the text messages, the social-networking sites, the idealism with a certain knowing edge — all reflected the candidate.
When Obama hit his famous 3-pointer during his overseas trip in Kuwait, it wasn’t exactly the young Alexander the Great taming the wild horse Bucephalus, a harbinger of the conqueror’s great courage and ambition. But it was a symbol of a youthful vitality that would make any political consultant swoon.
Young voters indeed turned out for Obama, although their percentage of the electorate didn’t change much from 2004 because turnout was up overall. An NBC analysis shows that voters under 30 were decisive for Obama’s victories in only two states, Indiana and North Carolina. Still, a quarter of Obama’s voters were under 30. Young voters tend to get worshipful treatment in the media, as if they are uniquely idealistic or sensible. They are neither, although they will be voting for roughly another four or five decades, making their long-term allegiance a treasured prize.
As for Obama, he’ll continue to garner magazine covers not just because he’s making history, but because there’s something inherently hopeful about having a young family in the White House. The Obamas will be the most picturesque first family since the Kennedys, and any young president — make that any young Democratic president — creates instant Camelot comparisons.
It doesn’t mean he’ll govern competently. Bill Clinton was elected at 46 and squandered his first two years in rookie mistakes. But the past few weeks confirm that youthfulness — in attitude, if not in fact — is the idiom of American politics. Obama should be grateful — until he’s old.