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The first clue was the light jazz. Last week’s “Change Starts With U: Kerry Campus Tour 2004” was billed as the unveiling of John Kerry’s “Compact with the Next Generation,” including tuition assistance and a national-service program. These five Northeastern college appearances were designed to inspire 30 million young adults to make the difference for Democrats in this presidential election. The press release promised “high-profile entertainment.”
But on Wednesday at Harlem’s City College, as hundreds of students and more than 50 members of the media waited over half an hour to hear Kerry, they listened to the cocktail-party stylings of a light jazz quartet. “It’s all right,” a slouching young man with a nose ring and ponytail commented. “It’s keeping me awake.” That was more than could be said for the rest of the program.
Judging from Wednesday’s performance, John Kerry is not all that interested in playing to young voters. Senator Hillary Clinton, greeted with a standing ovation, introduced the presumptive Democratic nominee, ticking off a long list of his accomplishments in the Senate: the fight for Vietnam P.O.W.’s and M.I.A.’s, the investigations into Iran Contra and BCCI, and a crusade against irresponsible fiscal policies. All important, none relevant to a college student today.
Then Kerry gave 15 minutes of his standard stump speech: tax-code reform, outsourcing, Social Security, and Medicare. “Let’s think about the worker who’s 45 or 50 years old who’s lost his job, lost his health insurance,” he exhorted the crowd of twenty- somethings, many of whom work two or even three jobs to pay their way through school. The senator didn’t talk about his proposed $4,000 tuition tax credit, maybe because it goes to parents who pay tuition, not students who shoulder the debt. And he didn’t touch his complicated plan to cover increases in education funding by ending federal interest-rate guarantees on student loans. Not until the Q&A did Kerry mention his national-service plan, which promises a free college ride for up to 200,000 students willing to do two-year tours in service professions like teaching or law enforcement.
In his windup, Kerry finally addressed students directly. “We want you back!” he said, allowing that there was a lot of disaffection because “you’re tired of the big money in politics”—not, say, because of politicians who don’t address young people’s problems. But, he said, “please understand that this is a race of empowerment.” And what is the means of empowerment? Why, going to johnkerry.com and donating your money—and while you’re there, “finding out how you can get involved” in the campaign. How that might be, Kerry didn’t say. The website mentions efforts to register Democratic voters on a total of 40 campuses.
No candidate would go to a senior center and give a lecture about Head Start. Why, then, bring college students to a speech at the “Harvard of the poor,” only to address the concerns of the middle-aged middle class?
The tone-deafness was all the more puzzling since this was absolutely a crowd that wanted to be on Kerry’s side. “I’m here because I want to have faith in my government. I’ve never really had it before,” said Sokunthary Svay, a 23-year-old English major who was born in a Cambodian refugee camp. Svay became a citizen two years ago and is looking forward to voting for anybody but Bush in her first election. “I’m hoping Kerry’s here because he’s reaching out to the working people,” she said, “showing that he’s not an Ivy League elitist.”
Yet Kerry bypassed obvious points of connection with his audience, mentioning tuition hikes only briefly and never referring specifically to the 25 percent increase CUNY students got last year along with budget cuts. “The rise in tuition, that’s what’s on everybody’s mind right now,” said Saran Kaba, a 20-year-old International Studies major. Zdenka Birre, 24, agreed, saying, “I want to know what he is doing to help education at our level, especially in New York City. And I want him to say, what are your chances of getting a job, how is that going for you?”
Nikki Young, 20, who was filming the speech for her school’s television station, was less than impressed: “This sounded like the same packaged speech he gives everyone. He should have tailored it more to us.”
In fact, the senator could have rewritten his entire stump speech to focus on young voters. To warm up, Kerry could have talked about the lives of his five kids in their twenties and early thirties, or his love of windsurfing and snowboarding, or his teenage stint in a garage band back at a New Hampshire prep school. He could have mentioned his recent MTV interview, providing a link back to Bill Clinton, who in 1992 succeeded in attracting more first-time and young voters than any other candidate in the past 30 years, in part because of frequent MTV appearances.
Then, Kerry could have gone for the gut. The bread-and-butter issues in the upcoming election—call them the Bush Syndrome—all affect young people disproportionately. Americans between the ages of 19 and 29 are now twice as likely to be uninsured as either children or older adults. The unemployment rate for people aged 16 to 24 was 16.1 percent as of February 2004, versus 6 percent for the general population. An estimated 900,000 people in this age group gave up and left the work force between 2000 and 2002, meaning a total of 6 million people in that range are dropouts, neither in school, working, nor in the military. By some accounts, the age group’s jobless rate is more than 80 percent.
Students are like any other demographic. They want to hear how issues affect them personally and what a candidate is going to do about them. But politically, they’re an invisible population, under-registered, under-represented, and under-affiliated. Clinton made his appeal to youth on the issues as well as on style, and was rewarded with a 20 percent spike in youth-voter turnout. In 2000, just 42 percent of registered voters between 18 and 24 cast ballots, versus 70 percent of those over 25. Kerry, facing a dead heat in national polls, already enjoys a 10-point lead among college students in the latest Harvard Institute of Politics poll because of issues like the Iraq war and gay marriage. He probably doesn’t see the need to do anything special for young people besides be an alternative to Bush. He’s dead wrong.
One audience member at City College, introduced as a 23-year-old social service worker from Chicago, asked Kerry, “How do we get young people involved in politics, since it’s not a sexy thing?”
“I think it’s sexy,” answered a smiling Kerry. He talked about John F. Kennedy, the Peace Corps, and his own national-service plan, seemingly content to use young people as a scenic backdrop for his nostalgia-rooted campaign. He figures the kids should be satisfied with an appeal to idealism, as he was in his privileged youth, and not be so rude as to ask what’s in it for them.