Why America needs a Generation X president

The generation charmingly called "America's neglected middle child" could save Washington

If some millennial manages to become the next president of the United States — say, Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg, who's definitely not running — Generation X may have lost its shot at the Oval Office.

It wouldn't have been for lack of trying. In 2016, several representatives of the generation born between 1965 and 1980 (give or take a few years in either direction) took running leaps in the presidential primaries: Marco Rubio, Bobby Jindal, Scott Walker; Ted Cruz even gave Donald Trump a run for his money, and conservative independent candidate Evan McMullin was considered a real contender to win Utah's six electoral votes.

Alas, the most recent election ended up being a choice between two baby boomers: Trump and Hillary Clinton. Generation X is representing, to be sure: House Speaker Paul Ryan, born in 1970, is third in line for the presidency, should ill fate or prosecution take out Trump and Vice President Mike Pence. And each party has its Gen X rising stars. But whether or not one of them ever becomes president, the generation demographers charmingly call "America's neglected middle child" will have only a short window to shape America, and Generation X needs better politicians to lead this endeavor.

What would a Gen X president have to offer? You may still think of Generation X as the slackers from such '90s classics as Singles, Reality Bites, and, well, Slackers. But that was then. Now, they're the tough, no-nonsense former latchkey children. "Gen-X did not inherit the military structure of the Greatest Generation, the class structure of the Silent Generation, nor the automatic economic growth given to the baby boomers," GOP consultant Brad Todd wrote in The Atlantic last year. "Instead, they inherited the latchkey kid autonomy that came from a skyrocketing divorce rate, and the adult career uncertainty ushered in by post-industrial economic transition."

As a generation, Pew tells us, Gen X is politically about halfway between the more conservative boomers and the more liberal millennials — whether that's a shifting-right-with-age phenomenon or something deeper is presumably to be determined. But it seems more complicated than simply occupying the political center. "It was Gen Xers who popularized the phrase 'socially liberal, economically conservative,'" generational researcher David Rosen wrote at Politico in January 2016, "an ideological orientation reflecting their underlying distaste for authority."

If that's true — tax cuts and gay marriage? — it isn't true for Gen X's political footprint. The most powerful Xer, Paul Ryan, is socially conservative and economically very conservative. Ditto Ted Cruz, the Gen Xer who came closest to the presidency. If the Greatest Generation lived in the penumbra of FDR and the boomers in the brief-hot glow of JFK, Gen X grew up with Jimmy Carter — a proximate doppelgänger of Mister Rogers — and especially Ronald Reagan.

The Republican Gen Xers venerate Reagan, but they're offering a purified version of Reaganism, sort of like the Gipper was a band and they're going to play only his best albums, original vinyl, on their political turntables. They probably genuinely love trickle-down economics, but as a practical matter, this Reaganphilia makes political sense, too, because the Republican Party, and especially the part of it that votes in primaries, is older and more more conservative than the general public (and Gen X).

On the Democratic side, the Gen X political standouts are socially liberal, like the party, and they are economically to the left of the country. If Gen X Republicans have to court Reagan-loving boomers, the Democrats need the support of the fickle millennials enamored of the dreamy democratic socialism of a 75-year-old pre-boomer U.S. senator.

The important difference between Gen X and its demographic older and younger siblings is in tone, though, not policy. It isn't that Gen X doesn't have its own aspirations, it's just that, collectively, it has seen the limits of ideological windmill-tilting and moral preening and recognizes the value of pragmatism. "If generations could be said to have mottos," Rosen argues at Politico, "Gen X's would almost certainly be Nike's omnipresent corporate slogan: Just Do It."

Boomers had a dream; Gen X has its own dreams but what it really wants is a plan. It has mortgages and car payments and kids to put through college.

So, who are our contenders?

The Democrats' Gen X bullpen includes Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), former HUD Secretary Julian Castro, Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), Sen. Kristen Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), and Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), to name a few. If Rep. Beto O'Rourke (D-Texas) managed to beat Ted Cruz next year, he'd easily be the most Gen-X Gen Xer in the Senate. Any of these Democrats might run for president, but none are early favorites to win the nomination.

On the Republican side, though, the entire House leadership team is Gen X: Kevin McCarthy, Steve Scalise, Cathy McMorris Rodgers, and Luke Messer were all born between '65 and '80. The youngest member of the House Democratic leadership is Rep. Joseph Crowley (R-N.Y.), the Democratic caucus chairman, born in 1962. The only Gen Xer in Senate leadership, in either party, is Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.), the chairman of the Republican Senatorial Committee. This asymmetry is worrisome.

Why? Because the two main political parties being what they are, the best shot for achieving a Gen X America lies in compromise, finding common ground between a vibrant Gen X right and Gen X left. Real compromise used to happen in Washington — say, when Reagan worked with the Democratic-controlled Congress to pass major immigration and tax reform. It has been rarer since the boomers took over Washington in 1995, but it could happen again, if we can move past their decades-old ideological blood feuds.

Generation X won't have a congressional majority until at least 2019, "and it could happen as late as 2024 if Gen Xers shy away from running or if incumbents in their late 70s and 80s continue to postpone retirement," Rosen says. A report on Gen X by the ad agency Sparks & Honey last year found that when Gen X does take power, however briefly, it is "predicted to add more inclusion and transparency to the political system, as well as a willingness and ability to compromise."

So, when the boomers finally retire (with their Social Security checks financed by Gen X and millennials), there's a chance for a new politics in Washington. But for that to happen, Gen X needs good politicians. Trump's last-gasp-boomer presidency is drawing candidates willing to take a leap of faith toward Congress in 2018, and so maybe that is when Gen X will gain a House majority. But the midterms are a year away, and Gen X is still Gen X.

"Though much derided, members of my generation turn out to be something like Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca — we've seen everything and grown tired of history and all the fighting and so have opened our own little joint at the edge of the desert, the last outpost in a world gone mad, the last light in the last saloon on the darkest night of the year," Rich Cohen writes in Vanity Fair. "There never were enough of us to demand the undivided attention of advertisers and hitmakers, we have been happy in our little joint, serving from can till can't astride the Sahara. We have been witnesses, watching and recalling."

Well, now it's time to leave the bar and enter the arena, Gen X. And all you have to do is be yourself.


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