Will Republicans Ever Appeal to Millennials?

Yesterday, I wrote in this space about the GOP's "Ron Paul Problem," by which I meant the risk for potential presidential candidates like Mitt Romney or Tim Pawlenty of squandering whatever swing appeal they might have in 2012 by pandering to the fringe in 2010. What I didn't mention is that Republicans also have a Ron Paul Opportunity. It's still not much of an opportunity for Paul himself, who is unlikely to run for the Republican nomination in 2012, let alone win. But if the GOP wants to build a lasting majority in the future, they could definitely stand to take a few cues from the good doctor. 

This has a lot to do with the party's biggest long-term problem: young people do not like Republicans. In a new poll on the politics of the so-called Millennial Generation, Pew Research reports that the GOP's current resurgence—experts like Charlie Cook expect Republicans to win back the House in November—is fueled almost exclusively by members of the Silent Generation, aged 65 to 85. While Millennials, like Generation Xers and baby boomers, have soured slightly on the Dems since 2008, they remain the only age group in which a majority identify themselves as Democrats (54 percent) and a majority plan to vote Democratic in 2010 (51 percent). Their geriatric counterparts, meanwhile, have shown a staggering 17-point swing toward the GOP in the last year. 

These results suggest that even if the Republicans have a good November, the future of the party is in peril. As conservative blogger Daniel Larison puts it, "conservatism is losing, indeed has already lost, most of the next generation, and that conservatism as we know it today is going to keep losing ground in the future." Part of the danger is demographic: without youth or Hispanic support, Republicans are basically saying sayonara to the fastest-growing segments of the population. And part is geographic: given regional growth patterns, a largely Southern party simply isn't sustainable. But it also has to do with policy. Compared to younger cohorts, the Silent Generation is far more belligerent in terms of foreign policy, far more close-minded in terms of social issues, and far more attached to entitlement spending. If Republicans are increasingly forced to depend on seniors at the polls—-which makes short-term sense, given that they're the country's most consistent voting bloc—they will be, too. (Which is why, for example, the GOP went apoplectic when the Democrats proposed trimming Medicare, even though that's exactly the kind of spending cut the party has advocated for decades.) This is not, to put it mildly, the way to the Millennial heart.

Enter Ron Paul, or at least the political undercurrent he represents. If Republicans were to inject a little dose of libertarianism into their personae and platforms--especially now--I suspect it would go a long way toward broadening their appeal to younger voters. I'm not saying the GOP needs to become an army of Ayn Rand revolutionaries or anything. Simply imagine a candidate who stressed three things: 1) fiscal discipline, 2) military skepticism, and 3) laissez-faire social policy. He would support anti-earmark efforts, but recognize them for what they are: tinkering around the edges. The real budget-balancing and right-sizing would revolve around reforming Medicare (which will face a $52 trillion shortfall will be short $52 trillion of what it promises to pay retirees and current workers within five years) and Social Security (which has already run through its surplus)—programs expected to leap from 8.4 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) to 18.6 percent of GDP as the boomers retire over the next few decades. Rep. Paul Ryan is one of the few Republicans to approach this problem seriously. In regard to the military, our imaginary candidate would resist the temptation to position himself, in Larison's words, as one of those "people who are furious with 'big government' for excessive spending but who simultaneously have no problem vesting the same government with virtually limitless power to seize, detain, wiretap, attack and kill just about anyone it wants to target." And he'd be unconcerned with forcing children to pray in public schools or refusing gays the right to marry, even if he happened to be a Christian himself. 

The basic idea is less government, more liberty, which is far more consistent than the GOP's current platform—and has the added bonus of being far more appealing to the (largely anti-Bush) Millennial Generation as well. As compared to the average American voter, Millennials are less willing to agree that military strength is the best way to ensure peace (52–42 overall vs. 38–58 for Millennials). They are more liberal in their views on family, homosexuality, and civil liberties (especially as compared to the Silent Generation). And they are identical on questions about whether "it is the responsibility of the government to take care of people who can't take care of themselves," which suggests that with old age still half a century away—and with the Boomers threatening to bankrupt the country—they'd see entitlement reform less as a threat than as a precaution. What's more, "while the Democratic Party has a larger advantage among Millennials than it does among the two oldest cohorts, a greater proportion of the party’s support comes from people who do not explicitly identify as Democrats but only lean toward the party." They're Independents, in other words. They could be convinced.

Our imaginary candidate wouldn't win national office anytime soon; the GOP's current base—hawks, evangelicals, and seniors—would eat him alive. But I suspect that he could compete in places like the industrial Northeast and the mountain West—especially as fiscal conservatism, social liberalism, and military skepticism increasingly come to define the electorate. In any case, without a little more libertarian spirit in its DNA, it's hard to see how the Republican Party will ever appeal to Millennials. Protecting Medicare, waterboarding prisoners, and marginalizing gays should work well for now. But not for long.