Paul Ryan’s rise to the speakership may have been accidental, but it’s the latest—and most prominent—example of the GOP’s youth movement becoming the face of the party.
At 45, Ryan is the youngest speaker since the 19th century. And his ascendance comes just as the Republican Party is trying to rebrand itself ahead of the 2016 election as a party for change rather than the destination for aging social conservatives.
“What we are trying to do is show the American people that we are the future. We are the ones trying to build a sustainable government. We are trying to get our entitlement programs under control and trying to get our debt under control, because if we don’t, that is all going to fall on my generation,” said Rep. Carlos Curbelo, a 35-year-old Republican from Florida who emerged as a face of the party earlier this year when he delivered a response to the president’s State of the Union in Spanish.
On the campaign trail, Republicans have a host of young candidates vying to be the foil to Hillary Clinton. There are 44-year-old Ted Cruz and 44-year-old Marco Rubio. Rather than duck questions of experience, Rubio has embraced his youth as a core tenet of his campaign. On paper, the story of the son of Cuban immigrants and his affinity for hip hop appears to be just the kind of boost the party needs to gain the attention of a younger crowd. The senator often jokes about his age in his stump speech.
“I was asked if 43 was old enough to become president, and I said, ‘I don’t know, but I am pretty sure 44 is,’” Rubio says.
While the faces of the GOP are looking increasingly youthful ahead of 2016, the Democratic Party—outside of its lame-duck president—is led by Washington veterans. Its two leading presidential contenders are former Secretary of State Clinton (68) and Sen. Bernie Sanders (74). And in the House, Democrats are led by Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (75), Whip Steny Hoyer (76), and Assistant Democratic Leader James Clyburn (75).
But the Democrats’ old bulls aren’t conceding that the GOP’s youth is an advantage. “There is no doubt that they reflect inexperience,” Hoyer said, a play on then-73-year-old Ronald Reagan’s refusal to “exploit” Walter Mondale’s “youth and inexperience” during a presidential debate. “I think there’s something to be said for having tried and finding that something didn’t work. The way you do that—hopefully you learn. Perhaps you gain a little wisdom. … What ought to be the litmus test is not the age of the leader but the quality of that leader’s leadership and courage in pursuing his or her convictions.”
Others pointed to policy—as well as diversity—as more important than age. “You can’t be the party of the future and advocate only for the failed policies of the past,” said Pelosi spokesman Drew Hammill. “The Democratic Caucus is a majority women, minorities, and LGBT members. The Republican Conference has never been short on middle-aged white guys, but what’s important is what you are fighting for.”
Still, the contrast is stark. The average age of the four highest-ranking Democratic leaders in the House is almost 71. The average age of the five highest-ranking Republicans is now just 47.
Part of the rise of younger Republicans to senior positions comes from each party’s disparate House rules. Republicans allow committee chairs to hold a gavel for only three terms, increasing turnover and allowing new members to rise quickly in the conference. Democrats, on the other hand, are appointed to chairmanships on the basis of seniority.
The seniority issue has long been a point of dispute among Democrats—up-and-comers say it stifles rising talent, while veterans argue that prioritizing experience opens up opportunities for minorities that they may have otherwise been denied.
“I don’t think there is any reason for the seniority system at all,” Democratic Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney, a second-termer, said earlier this year. “It’s a relic. I think it gets in the way of a merit-based approach, which should define who we are as a party.”
And young Republicans are quick to point out the disparity.
“We want to empower our new members, and that is a struggle with Democrats who are frustrated with that lack of mobility,” Rep. Elise Stefanik, a freshman Republican from New York, told National Journal.
“It’s wonderful that we have this youthful energy, that there’s a meritocracy in our conference, in our party,” added Curbelo. “Where it’s not just about who’s been around the longest and whose turn it is, but who can earn it and who’s the most qualified to advance our agenda.”
Stefanik was the youngest woman to be elected to Congress, and she leads the Republican Policy Committee’s Millennial Task Force, a group aimed at helping Republicans better connect with young voters. Republicans such as Stefanik see a unique opportunity as 2016 approaches for the congressional message to match the one on the debate stage and campaign platform: that Republicans want to help make America stronger, but they just don’t think expanding government is the way to do it.
“Millennials have come into the workforce at a time when we were experiencing overreach by this administration. We have come of age in government gridlock with a very partisan tenor,” Stefanik said. “Millennials don’t believe that government is the most effective in solving problems, and that lack of faith in big government is an opportunity for Republicans to win over millennials.”
Yet fresher faces alone still won’t be enough to convince younger voters that they should cast ballots for a Republican in 2016. While a Harvard poll found that 83 percent of millennials had very little faith in Congress, the same poll showed that millennials are still ideologically more aligned with Democrats than Republicans.
The majority—55 percent—believe climate change exists and is caused by human activity, and 55 percent still want a Democrat to control the White House after the 2016 election.
“Look, they may look young, but they think old,” former Democratic Congressional Campaign Chairman Steve Israel said of Republicans (Israel now heads House Democrats’ messaging efforts). “They may be young in age, but they think like Neanderthals. And what Americans want is not someone who looks a certain way, but will stand up for increased wages and will fix a broken system, and they have shown no signs of ability to do that.”
Whether or not they believe their leaders’ age is an issue, many Democrats do have an eye on the future. Israel was part of a group of House Democrats who met earlier this year to try to garner support for Rep. Chris Van Hollen as the heir to Pelosi. Van Hollen since opted to run for Senate, and no consensus successor has emerged. (Pelosi has not said when she’ll retire, and many believe that she’s waiting for a candidate who can beat Hoyer.)
Another member of the Van Hollen group, Rep. Dan Kildee, is an up-and-comer in his own right. The second-termer is a regional whip within the caucus, and he’s leading the DCCC’s “Frontline” efforts to defend vulnerable members. Still, he said his party’s age is less of a problem than the GOP’s policies.
“I’m more concerned with new ideas than the age of the people offering them, and frankly while I’m happy to see somebody in his 40s as speaker, I wish he had ideas that represented the generation that he’s a part of,” Kildee said. “Likewise, the folks that I work with within our leadership have ideas that work for people of all generations.”