KETZENBERGER: A grocery clerk sizes up the contenders

February 4, 2012

John KetzenbergerThe young man at the grocery store near my house surprised me.

No, he didn’t chastise me for the half-gallon of vanilla ice cream and marshmallow fluff I put on the checkout counter. He asked me an astute political question on the evening of President Obama’s State of the Union speech and Gov. Mitch Daniels’ Republican response (which is why I had the fixin’s for a banana split).

“Do you think Indiana will figure into the Republican primaries this year like it did in the Democrat primaries last time?” he asked. “That was pretty cool.”

Now, wait a minute, I thought. Here’s a mid-20s guy I’ve known since he was in my kids’ grade school. I’ve seen him in the store for years, first as a clerk and now as a manager, but we’ve never really done more than nod our acknowledgment and trade “Hi, how are yous.”

He slipped his question in as he weighed the bananas. I tried not to let the shock register on my face. He’s supposed to be part of the disenchanted, disaffected and disconnected generation. You know, one of those the politicians and pundits often dismiss—or just diss.

I told him it was a real possibility our neighborhood would be crawling with political operatives again, this time of the Republican stripe. So we talked for a few minutes about the candidates and the race.

Mitt Romney’s OK, he said, Newt Gingrich definitely is not. Rick Santorum? Meh. Ron Paul, though, intrigued him enough to do a little more research. He likes Paul’s Libertarian streak, his live-and-let-live mentality. Of the quartet, Paul’s most likely to get his vote—for now.

I signed the charge slip and headed to the parking lot. That’s when it struck me: Republicans are about to lose a whole generation of potential voters. The Party of Lincoln has become so dogmatic and hypocritical that it’s alienating young voters.

Hear the party through this young man’s ears for a moment:

• “We’re mortgaging our children’s future with all this debt,” sounds like, “Here, you figure it out.” Can you imagine anything more frustrating than feeling like you’re the first generation in U.S. history not to exceed your parents’ standard of living?

Yet, Republicans and Democrats continue to blame each other for the debt, Congress has ground to a halt, and the economy sputters. What a terrible example for the next generation of leaders. I only hope they learn to avoid this pitfall and not emulate it.

• “Marriage is between one man and one woman” sounds like, “It’s OK to discriminate against gay people.”

News flash: Young people tend to be more inclusive and they’re tired of wedge issues. Republicans are digging their party a grave if they continue to push wedge issues.

• “Hey, honey, can we have an ‘open’ marriage?” sounds like, “Do as I say, not as I do.”

Go ahead and blame the media, blame Gary Hart or blame the perpetrators, but personal integrity matters to younger voters. The voters of South Carolina didn’t seem to take heed but, trust me, young voters are sick of politicians’ hypocrisy.

• “I’m just doing what my constituents want me to do,” sounds like, “Yeah, the special interests and wealthy ones who financed my election, not the regular folk like me.”

It’s little wonder that Washington is among the country’s fastest-growing regions, because big money has corrupted politics. The Supreme Court’s Citizen’s United decision has only created more channels for money in the system.

With few exceptions, young people are not monied enough to sway the system. They’re really good with technology, though, and that in time might be an equalizer.

Then I watched Obama’s excellent speech and Daniels’ excellent response and another thought occurred: A presidential race between these two would have a restorative effect on the next generation, and that made the banana split go down easier.•


Ketzenberger is president of the Indiana Fiscal Policy Institute, a not-for-profit dedicated to nonpartisan research into the state’s tax policies and budget practices. Send comments on this column to ibjedit@ibj.com.


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