When South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg makes his pitch on why he, mayor of the fourth-largest city in Indiana, should get a serious look from voters who want to unseat President Donald Trump, he points directly at his lack of wrinkles.
He’s a young guy, not an old guy, and to Buttigieg, that’s the point.
“When you take a look at me, my face is my message, right? A lot of this is simply the idea that we need generational change, that we need more voices stepping up from a generation that has so much at stake in the decisions that are being made right now.”
Buttigieg, who was born in 1982, would be the first millennial presidential candidate, if you go by the Pew definition. He’s up against Bernie Sanders, who like potential candidate Joe Biden comes from the Silent Generation, born before the end of World War II. Along with the baby boomers and Gen Xers in between, it’s a four-generation spread unseen in modern presidential politics.
Generations change slowly, and there are different definitions for when they start and stop. But this is the first full year of millennials to reach the constitutionally mandated age of 35 to take the office of president.
Tulsi Gabbard, the Hawaii congresswoman, is also 37 and grew up in the same era as Buttigieg, but she was born in 1981, technically the last year of Generation X, according to Pew. They’re both younger today than Sanders — who came into the world a few months before the attacks on Pearl Harbor — was when they were born.
A changing of the old guard has been a consistent theme for Democrats this year. They swept into control of the House of Representatives this year with a diverse new army of millennial lawmakers whose figurehead is freshman Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York. Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat who’s also a Silent Generation politician, was able to keep her leadership role in part by promising to adhere to new self-imposed leadership term limits.
Trump was born in the first year of the baby boom, according to Pew. That’s the same generation as Barack Obama, who was born in 1961, and Sen. Kamala Harris of California, who was born in 1964, the last year of the baby boom. We haven’t yet had a Gen X president, but there are seven candidates of that era running in 2020, according to Pew’s definitions, from Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York (born in 1966) to Gabbard.
Weirdly, there may appear to be less of an attitude gap between them than there was between, say, World War II veteran George H.W. Bush and Vietnam War protester Bill Clinton.
But Trump, like Biden, sought deferments to avoid the draft during the Vietnam War. Sanders claimed conscientious objector status. They’ll square off against Gabbard or Buttigieg, the two youngest current presidential candidates. Both were born years after the Vietnam War ended and volunteered for the military in the patriotic period after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Buttigieg likes to point out that Americans born after 9/11 will soon be deployed in Afghanistan. They’ll be able to vote in 2020 too.
Buttigieg, currently the youngest in the field, is making a virtue of his relative political inexperience.
“I also think that age can be an advantage here,” Buttigieg said during a recent CNN town hall. “If only because it allows me to communicate to the country a vision about what our country is going to look like in 2054. That’s the year I get to the current age of the current President.”
He also says he’s governing for a future he’ll live in, which is kind of macabre but also makes some sense.
“When you take that personally, you know, when that’s not just something you’re worried about in theory, but you’re personally preparing for what the world is going to look like, when — God willing — I get to that age, then I think it gives you a different sense of urgency.”
Although Biden, Sanders and Trump will all tell you they’re spry and not going anywhere.
Even Buttigieg stopped short on MSNBC of saying age is a disqualifier.
“It’s not my place to say whether anybody else ought to be president. And look, let’s be very clear you’ll see older voters voting for younger candidates and younger voters voting for older candidates,” he said. “And that’s fine. That’s good.”