The Magazine

Panting After the Youth Vote

From the November 17, 2003 issue: The Democratic candidates make fools of themselves.

Nov 17, 2003, Vol. 9, No. 10 • By MATT LABASH
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Still, that doesn't stop MTV/Rock the Vote types from incessantly scolding candidates that they need to chase youth tail. Since nobody seems to know what young people want, the we-need-to-listen-to-our-youth cries reappear in every election cycle like a bad rash. What the youth have to say, if anything at all, is almost beside the point. As MTV's Walter Cronkite and longtime Rock the Vote collaborator Gideon Yago, himself a twenty-something, says at the pre-debate panel discussion, there is a "need to establish a dialogue, and the importance of this voter bloc." He adds that "politicians are not going out and aggressively trying to establish a dialogue with them," a tragedy, since the young are "profoundly engaged with politics, even if they don't know it." Better, Yago says, to "placate and discuss and engage in a dialogue now, than have us be a major oppositional bloc 15 years from now."

Outside Faneuil Hall, Rock the Vote produces Casey Affleck, Ben's much less famous brother, so that he can register to vote. But either nobody recognizes him or nobody cares. Howard Dean and John Kerry supporters are hip-checking each other and commingling signs so that at first glance it looks like an unruly mob is striving to "Elect John Dean." Here, I grab five Rock the Vote street team members, ranging in age from 19 to 26, and ask them what issues young people want to see addressed. One of them abstains, another says the environment, two say education, and one says defense. It occurs to me that these aren't young-people issues, they're people issues. But it doesn't matter. A dialogue has been established.

DURING THE DEBATE, another dialogue goes off under the stewardship of Anderson Cooper, whom TV critics frequently mistake for "edgy"--though in fairness to Cooper, it's an easy mistake to make since he shares a line-up with Aaron Brown. Over the last few months, candidates have attempted to make inroads into the youth vote: Howard Dean has identified himself as a metrosexual, John Kerry has gigged with Moby, and Dennis Kucinich has consorted with rappers like Noyeek the Grizzly Bear, picking up endorsements such as "Yo, I love this fool."

Throughout the debate, it's clear that young people like to be pandered to, and politicians like to pander--the perfect marriage. This is evident in the 30-second candidate videos (Wes Clark, never known as the class clown, is actually seen having an earnest discussion about the potential break-up of Outkast, before bumping knuckles with a young voter). But it is more evident in the candidates' dress. While a good portion of the young audience are in coat and tie, Dean comes out with no jacket and rolled-up sleeves. John Edwards wears a coat, but no tie. Joe Lieberman and John Kerry, perhaps feeling overdressed, both ditch their jackets before the debate gets started. By the first commercial break, Edwards loses his jacket and rolls up his sleeves. Later, Al Sharpton sheds his jacket and unbuttons his vest. Wesley Clark, in jacket and black mock turtleneck, looks like he's on his way to a humanities professor party. And Dennis Kucinich, wearing the exact same rig, looks as if Clark's mother laid out his clothes. (Clark, perhaps not wanting to be outdone by Lieberman, Kerry, Edwards, and Sharpton, also ends up ditching his jacket.)

That settled, they get onto the issue young people care about most: antebellum racism. An audience member pounces on a tempest-in-a-teapot, Dean's lazily phrased attempt at outreach to southern voters with Confederate flags on their pick-up trucks (allowing grandstanders Edwards and Sharpton to establish, once and for all, that the Democratic party is no longer pro-slavery). There are plenty of non-youth-vote-type questions, on everything from the Cuban embargo to Iraq. But all the questions that are unorthodox, and could only be asked by Rock the Vote-ish audience members, tend to remind observers how painful it is when presidential candidates try to "keep things real," as Cooper implores them to do. (Even Bill Clinton--who was better than anybody at keeping it real in a fake way--let slip to the kids that his favorite musician was Kenny G.)

During the obligatory pot-smoking question, several candidates seem willing to drink bong-water if it would establish their credentials. When one woman asks which of their fellow candidates they'd most like to party with, Lieberman creeps-out the room by saying, "I hope my wife understands this. I'd like to party with the young lady who asked that question." Sharpton takes it further, saying he'd like to party with John Kerry's wife. Kerry sheds his long-faced Easter Island mask, adopts a self-conscious smile, and says he'd wanted to party with Carol Moseley Braun, but now he'd better stick with Sharpton "so I can keep an eye on my wife." Sharpton and Kerry then clasp hands in what is the first, and it is to be hoped last, soul-brother handshake of this election.