Penn's Generational Politics

All over Pennsylvania, parents and their college-age children are battling over the state's Democratic primary. In one dining room in a small industrial town in northeastern Pennsylvania, the animus grew especially strong on Easter Sunday. Over honey-baked ham, Kathleen, 22, a student at a local Catholic college, and her mother, a hairdresser, got into a fight that brought the family dinner to a standstill. Kathleen and her mother have been arguing about the relative virtues of Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama for months—largely, Kathleen says, because her mother is deeply worried about the economy and doesn't think Obama is capable of fixing it. "She says Obama is too idealistic," says Kathleen, who asked to be identified only by her middle name because she's working for a local media outlet that does not permit her to publically express her political views. "And I told her I want someone idealistic. I think she believes he's promising too much." Kathleen said the Easter argument began when her 76-year-old grandfather warned her and her brother that he's never seen the country in such bad shape. "'You and your brother are going to have to work to fix this country'," Kathleen recalls him saying. Kathleen says her mother then provoked her by pointing out that life was great under Bill Clinton. "I don't like my mom equating [Hillary] with her husband," Kathleen said. "I said, 'Her husband's not gonna be president, Mom'." That was enough to send grandpa over the edge. He stopped the conversation and demanded the family get back to eating.

Kathleen's family is not the only one grappling with fierce generational rivalries in this election's Democratic contests. In Pennsylvania—as in Ohio, which Hillary won by 10 percent—Clinton currently has bedrock support from the so-called Reagan Democrats: white, blue-collar, middle-age men and women who defected from the Democratic Party in 1980 and 1984 to vote for Reagan. Many voters fitting this profile are now solidly back in the Democrats' corner but have proven difficult for Obama to win over in Pennsylvania, fueling Clinton's 12-point lead in one recent state poll. But Obama may see his support among that group increase soon, thanks to Sen. Bob Casey's endorsement of him, announced this morning. Against abortion and in favor of gun rights, Casey, a Roman Catholic, is the son of a popular Pennsylvania governor who, like Reagan, succeeded by winning over those blue-collar, socially conservative Democrats.

Casey explained his endorsement by describing the intense enthusiasm his kids feel for Obama. "Let me tell you a little story about my four daughters, one by one," he said. "First of all, my daughter Caroline, our second, she saw Senator Obama speak at the 2004 convention. She was not only listening … by the end of his speech, she was standing on her chair. And that's the same reaction that we've all had about his campaign and about his character. My daughter Elyse was sitting in our home the night of the Iowa caucuses. Senator Obama was speaking, and she was transfixed looking at the television set. And all of a sudden—I was standing there in the kitchen with her—the telephone rang, her cell phone rang. One of her good friends called her, she picked up the phone and she said, 'I can't talk to you now, I am listening to Barack Obama,' and she hung up ... My daughter Julia is reading 'The Audacity of Hope' right now. And my daughter Marena, who's our youngest, is 11, she's been giving me messages for Senator Obama that I'm supposed to impart to him later."
Like Casey's daughters, Angie McNie, a 20-year-old sophomore at Penn State and a member of the university's Students for Obama club, has persuaded her dad and stepdad to give Obama a second look. McNie, a   student from a blue-collar Pittsburgh family—her dad works as a bus driver—said she's been steadily campaigning to convince her parents to vote Obama. She said she told them that Clinton's universal health-care plan might not be as great as it sounds. "I tried to explain … that if Hillary does institute this it means you are forced to buy this health care, and if you can't afford it for whatever reason they take it out of your wages," she said. "A couple weeks later my dad said, 'I'm sorry, hon. I'm still voting for Hillary.' I said, 'It's OK, but it would be so much better for me if you'd look into both candidates and their platforms instead of just [thinking] their husband was a good president'." McNie says her dad is still leaning toward Clinton, but has promised he'll think about Obama. She said she made inroads with her stepdad by pointing out that Obama doesn't accept money from special-interest groups. "He didn't believe me at first, and then he looked into it and he said, 'I really agree with that'," McNie said. But she said her stepdad still thinks Obama is too young and inexperienced. McNie said she hasn't stopped trying to persuade them, but her parents are tiring of the conversation. "A lot of people don't like to discuss these things with me," she said, "because they know I get so passionate. Especially my parents."

Andrew Craft, a 19-year-old Penn State student from the western Pennsylvania town of Mars, is also passionate. He does volunteer work for the campaign almost daily—even as he juggles exams, parties and a part-time job. His mom, Nancy, a teacher, and dad, Donald, a FedEx carrier, support Hillary Clinton. They think Bill Clinton was a great president and care deeply about health care and other issues they believe Clinton is more qualified than Obama to fix. The debate over which Democrat will make a better president has grown so heated that the family has adopted guidelines to keep their discourse civil.  "We have come to a consensus in our family," says Nancy Craft. "Around the country it's very polarized right now. Some [Democrats] are saying they're gonna vote for John McCain … In our house, we've decided that no matter who gets the nomination, we'll support the [Democratic candidate]." The family still debates, Nancy Craft says, but the tone is good-natured and often stems from Andrew's penchant for flaunting Obama gear around the house. "He has Obama pins on his backpack and on his car he has a bumper sticker," she said, adding that her car is adorned with a Clinton bumper sticker. After months of trying to sell his parents on Obama, whom he respects for being a "real, straightforward positive thinker," Andrew says he has pretty much given up on converting them. But that hasn't stopped him from trying. "I give them my little spiel every now and then, but we're both pretty solidly in support of one or the other," he said.

The debate has brought him closer to his parents. Andrew was upset about the negative tenor of the campaign, especially as the scandal surrounding Obama's pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, exploded, and he confided in his mom. "We both agreed that both of those are silly talking points," he said of the warfare between the campaigns about Obama's association with Wright as well as Clinton's made-up encounter with sniper fire in Bosnia. Nancy said she comforted Andrew by telling him that negativity is as old as politics. "He was very upset about the Reverend Wright fracas," Nancy recalled, "and I said, 'It's kind of like Monica Lewinsky and the blue dress'." The younger generation is quickly getting wise to the ways of politics—but hasn't given up on getting their elders to try to see things afresh.