Mitt Romney’s vice presidential short-list came down to a choice between a baby boomer, Rob Portman (born 1955), and a Gen Xer, Paul Ryan (born 1970). Romney’s decision to pick Ryan—the first post-boomer ever to run on a national ticket—was widely described as bold, in large part for highlighting entitlement reform in a campaign that had been mainly about jobs. But it was also a generational statement. If the Republican team wins the White House, a non-boomer’s ascendancy could prove the key to solving the most daunting problem of the boomers’ legacy: the crippling burden their retirement will put on the nation’s finances.
The first boomer turned 65 in 2011, and another 10,000 boomers will reach retirement age every day until 2030, according to the Pew Research Center. By then, Pew writes, “fully 18 percent of the nation’s population will be at least that age. . . . Today, just 13 percent of Americans are ages 65 and older.” At current rates of expenditure, Social Security and Medicare—especially Medicare—will someday eat the entire federal budget.
Described in a 2003 Weekly Standard profile as “young but devoid of Gen-X cynicism,” Ryan has made a simple appeal to his own generation: Unless something changes, there will be nothing left for us. “If you’re under 55, those of us in my X generation and everybody else, we know we’re not getting the program as it’s currently structured,” Ryan said at a House Budget Committee hearing on Medicare and other entitlements in March 2010. “So why don’t we come up with an idea to save the program, to make it sustainable, to give us a benefit, my generation, that’s something we know we can count on?”
Now Ryan and Romney are advocating reform in purely generational terms. If you’re 55 or older, they promise, your Medicare coverage will never be affected as long as you live. If you’re 54 or younger, you’ll have the option of joining another plan in which you will receive premium support—Ryan doesn’t really have a problem calling it a voucher, except that Democrats have made that a bad word over the years—that will pay for most, if not all, of your medical coverage. That change alone, Ryan argues, will mean an enormous reduction in future deficits.
Choosing Ryan—farther from retirement than anyone else on either ticket—instantly elevated Medicare to a top place in the presidential campaign. In a mid-August Quinnipiac University-New York Times-CBS News poll of swing states, Medicare ranked ahead of foreign policy, the deficit, and housing as a top concern of voters in the must-win states of Ohio and Florida. That is, at least in part, the result of Romney’s decision to choose Ryan.
So far though, Ryan seems to have a reverse generational appeal. In Florida, for example, voters 65 and older—the ones who are on Medicare now—are accepting the assurance that their benefits won’t be touched and are strongly supporting Romney-Ryan. Among voters who are a little younger—50 to 64—the race is very close. And among voters under 50, Obama and Biden have a big lead.
In other words, the people who would not be affected by the Romney-Ryan Medicare plan support Romney-Ryan. The people who might be affected are on the fence. And the people who would definitely be affected support Obama-Biden—even though they stand to lose the most if nothing is done to stop runaway entitlement spending.
Of course, there are all kinds of other factors at work in the polls. And even among voters who support Romney-Ryan, it’s hard to sort out what support is attributable to Romney and what to Ryan. But the fact is, the Republican ticket in 2012, with its vigorous young vice presidential candidate, strongly appeals, as it has in years past, to older voters. Changing the minds of younger voters—not 20-somethings, but those approaching middle age—is a hugely important job for the Republican candidates.
When Romney selected Ryan, some observers suggested that, in addition to all the other considerations, Ryan simply looked to Romney like one of the bright young men he used to hire at Bain Capital. Ryan apparently has that effect on other people Romney’s age. It’s his contemporaries who need more convincing.
The vice presidential debate, set for October 11 in Danville, Kentucky, will be, among other things, a generational showdown. There is a 28-year age gap between Ryan and Joe Biden, born in 1942 (a gap even larger than the 22 years that separated Biden and Sarah Palin, born in 1964). Looking back a few years for comparison, Dick Cheney, born in 1941, and John Edwards, born in 1953, could have been brothers with a 12-year age difference. The Ryan-Biden gap will be obvious to anyone who watches.
In Danville, both the young candidate and the old candidate will try to convince voters 55 and older that they don’t have anything to worry about personally and voters 54 and younger that they do. But in the end, it’s possible that the generational differences over entitlements won’t really be resolved until the older generation goes away.
In early April 2011, as Ryan prepared to unveil his first budget proposal, which included the Medicare premium support plan, he met with a small group of journalists at a Washington restaurant. He laid out the plan in a sharp, succinct presentation, then took questions. After a lot of discussion, a reporter asked when the plan would balance the federal budget. Ryan said that would take many years, until the late 2030s. The reporter then wondered whether the Ryan plan would, in essence, balance the budget only after a large number of the baby boomers were dead. Ryan would never say such a thing, but he didn’t disagree.
Mitt Romney didn’t choose Paul Ryan simply because of his age. But the first Gen Xer on a presidential ticket is raising generational issues that are likely to be with us as long as the boomers are on the scene.
Byron York is chief political correspondent at the Washington Examiner.