CPAC Conservatives to Millennials: 'Blah! Blah! Blah!'

Conference reflects disconnect between young voters and the political system.

A woman browses through conservative politicals badges at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) at National Harbor, Maryland, outside Washington, DC on February 26, 2015. (National Journal)

If you wanted to script a comically counterproductive millennial-generation presentation, you would make it stuffy, partisan, and dismissive of the choices young people make. Congratulations, CPAC. Your opening session was a bust.

The annual gathering of conservative activists managed to get almost everything wrong with a Thursday morning session titled, "Reclaiming the American Dream: Millennials Look Toward Their Future."

The title itself spoke to a lost opportunity: After lifting President Obama to the White House in 2008, young voters have been drifting away from the Democratic Party and are once again poised to be a swing vote.

The Democratic share of voters between ages 18 and 29 has declined from 60 percent in the 2006 midterm elections to about 54 percent in November. Half of all millennials call themselves independents, up 12 points since just 2008.

Young Americans are hard to pin down ideologically—leaning left on issues like immigration and marijuana legalization, and right on issues including affirmative action and health care. Most important: While millennials are highly engaged in volunteerism and civic engagement, they are less inclined than their parents and grandparents to see politics or government as a force for good. Nearly half of young voters polled by the Harvard Institute of Politics in 2013 agreed with this statement: "Politics today are no longer able to meet the challenges our country is facing."

Which is why I think CPAC blew it. Rather than offer a positive, forward-looking vision for a political system that works, the panel spent the bulk of its time spouting baby-boom talking points.

Sen. Ben Sasse, a 44-year-old Republican senator from Nebraska, mocked Obamacare—focusing on the size of the bill rather than its merits. He denounced the "coercive powers of the state," and got close to questioning the work ethic of young Americans.

Rep. Mia Love, a 39-year-old Republican from Utah, barely mentioned the rising generation, sticking with GOP boilerplate about not yielding "the moral high ground of the Left—to get out of the way and allow the American people to rise."

Fellow panelist Charlie Kirk, 21, of Turning Point USA, a conservative economic group geared toward millennials, openly mocked young Americans who don't think like him. "A young person voting for a Democrat is like a chicken voting for Colonel Sanders," he said. The audience laughed.

After being introduced while sitting in white swivel chairs—call it "millennial informal"each panelist inexplicably delivered remarks from behind a teleprompter and lectern.

Kirk proudly announced his group's motto, "Big government sucks," apparently unaware of polls suggesting that millennials are generally bored with the argument over the size of government. They'd rather hear a debate over how to modernize Washington and state capitals—solving big problems pragmatically and through compromise.

A leading political demographer, Michelle Diggles of the Democratic think tank Third Way, argues that her party and the GOP are talking past young Americans. "Millennials are pragmatic," she wrote in March 2014, "they want to know what works and are willing to take ideas from each side. They eschew ideological purity tests of the past. In short, they are winnable by both parties, if only policymakers understood and respected their values."

A better approach for CPAC would have been to focus on those right-leaning values that naturally align with the millennial generation. That would include fiscal issues such as the U.S. debt and privatization of government bureaucracies, and lifestyle attributes such as career flexibility and independence. Finally, CPAC is a beehive of young libertarians worried about government spying and privacy intrusions, concerns shared by most millennials.

"That sounds to me like the beginning of a conversation millennials would like to have with a political party," said John Della Volpe, pollster for the Harvard Institute of Politics, which has been surveying young Americans for more than a dozen years. (Disclosure: I served on the IOP board.)

"They would want to know how you would define those issues and how government would be involved, if at all," said Della Volpe, who also believes that neither party has a lock on the next generation of voters. Rather than lecture from behind a teleprompter, he suggested that conservative leaders crowdsource ideas with millennials to give the new generation a stake in the GOP's future.

I described for him the CPAC pitch: Old talking points, fresh grievances against Obama, and condemnation of millennials who have voted Democratic. "None of that is relevant," Della Volpe said. "None of that is very smart."