According to Rock the Vote, “young people totally rocked the vote in 2004.” Personally, I’m a bit skeptical about the impact of the youth vote electorally, let alone the use of the word “rock” as a verb in non-musical, non-ironic contexts.
However, I am surprised that there has been relatively little discussion about what energizes young voters — if for no other reason than it is one of the media’s favorite political tropes — especially given that this is a tight election cycle.
The problem is that politically serious discussions with young voters are hard to come by. Sure, there’s the MySpace/MTV candidates’ forum. Call me crazy, but I happen to doubt that the producers of A Shot At Love With Tila Tequila — the first basic cable bisexual dating show aimed at teenagers and starring a Penthouse model — will likely produce well informed young voters. Maybe I’m older than the target demographic, but after seeing a portion of episode 8, “Lapdance for Grandma,” I was ready to vote for Pat Robertson on the spot.
Fortunately, an alternative to the oversexed voter’s guide exists: the America’s Future Foundation. AFF’s mission is “to identify and develop … future conservative and libertarian leaders.” Among the many efforts that AFF undertakes in its cultivation of leaders is host monthly policy debates — for which I appeared on a recent panel.
AFF hosted one such forum on Wednesday in order to discuss the candidates. The AFF lined up five panelists to make the case for each of the major Republican candidates, excepting Tancredo, Hunter, and McCain. (Rumor has it Alan Keyes offered to appear in person but apparently AFF’s standards for inclusion are stricter than those of the Des Moines Register.)The discussion that ensued was wide-ranging and revealing, and provided a good lens through which to see what animates young conservatives and libertarians today. In introducing the event, AFF executive director David Kirby openly wished that the discussion would result in “blood on the floor,” and in that respect the event was not a disappointment.
One by one, the panelists made their cases — some candidate representatives were part of the official campaign or paid consultants, while others were merely fans of their candidate of choice; all were equally passionate. (You can read the panelists’ bios here.)
Romney was sold as a problem solver, Rudy has leadership experience, Thompson is the only candidate that unites the conservative coalition, Paul the only candidate bold enough to be anti-war and address the structural problems of government, and Huckabee’s ability as communicator speaks to what he could accomplish even with limited resources.
Of course, none of these characterizations are particularly new. They are simply the candidates trying to put their best foot forward. The question of the evening was really what the event would tell us about young voters.
Far from the media caricature of young voters as fickle, immature slackers to whom candidates must pander, principles matter quite a lot to these up and coming conservatives. And because youth vote is so often associated with revolution and a desire for change, that unwavering ideological constancy would be so valued by a room full of young voters — even right-leaning ones — is a bit of a revelation.
In that sense, Justin Hart, co-founder of MyManMitt.com the most-trafficked Romney blog, had his work cut out for him defending a candidate not exactly celebrated for his consistency. Hart chose to highlight one principle that few would argue Romney has violated.
Based on the Aristotelian principle that it is the first duty of a statesmen to get elected, and, frankly, when you talk about the forces that we’re going to be facing in the general election against Hillary Clinton most likely, … you need a candidate who can organize on a local basis,” Hart said. “If you ask any of the candidates up here they will tell you that Mitt Romney has the best organization bar none across the country and that is what it takes to get in the door and make things happen.
In the end, I love ideas and ideas are powerful things and I think they can turn out the masses and my nod to Ron Paul and my colleagues here for the particular efforts that they’ve made — you see the passion there. But it takes more than passion [to get elected].
This argument about electability appeals to mature voters. Indeed, in their recent endorsement of Romney, National Review’s editors noted “Our guiding principle has always been to select the most conservative viable candidate.”
But while there was no outright guffawing, making this argument with young voters went over like a reggae band at a Klan rally. Instead, the evening belonged to Paul. During the Q&A session that followed the panel, well over half of the queries were directly related to the congressman’s positions, or were obviously sympathetic to Paul.
That’s not to say that Paul was exalted by the crowd; his positions on immigration and the federal budget were challenged, and there was a good deal of criticism regarding his idealistic foreign policy.
Jonathan Bydlak, Paul’s fundraising director, was constantly left to defend Paul’s isolationism, a position that is still clearly out of step with many voters on the right. Responding to Giuliani adviser Michael Zarrelli’s thoughts on the mayor’s prospective foreign policy, Bydlak said, “If this is the terrorists’ war against us, with all due respect, then why are we in Iraq? … I don’t quite make that connection any more than invading Sweden.” This prompted Hart to question where Paul’s foreign policy fits in the spectrum of contemporary conservatism. “Is the Democratic panel across the street?” he joked. The question caused an equal mix of laughter and objections from the crowd.
Regardless of the debate over where Paul’s principles fit in, perhaps the more relevant point is that Paul obviously has principles, and accordingly earns respect. Young voters — at least in this forum — saw Paul as a force to reckon with, for good or for ill. It certainly says something that the crowd found Paul the most interesting candidate for the purposes of their discussion.
For many, electability might well be the deciding factor in determining who to support in the coming elections. But that doesn’t change the fact Paul — a tragically unhip old man who comes off rather like an autistic version of Don Knotts — has animated the youth vote through the sheer force of his principled conviction. Moreover, his principles stimulate discussion even among those who think he’s misguided.
His conviction alone is unlikely to get the Texas congressmen elected president. But for now, if Ron Paul and young voters succeed in making the rest of the candidates adopt principles, assert their beliefs strongly, and ensure they hold fast to those beliefs and principles, who could argue against the importance of the role that Paul has played?
– Mark Hemingway is an NRO staff reporter.