Missing link: Democrats and young voters

Last week's election conveyed two remarkable outcomes. The first was that Democrats spat up control of the Senate and took losses in the House at the outer edge of realistic predictions. The second was that they did so little to capture the votes of one of the party's natural constituencies – 18- to 24-year-olds, who observers expected would turn out in fewer numbers than they did in the 2000 presidential elections. Only a third of that age group showed up at the polls then – so it's likely that around 18 million of those young people didn't vote last week.

Democrat stalwarts will claim they were victimized by 9/11, by a popular and politically manipulative president, and probably by the phase of the moon. Nonsense. The Democrats were beaten by their own inability to say something other than "me too," on the most important issues facing our country – the issues with the greatest potential to motivate those missing 18 million young voters.

The first is the economy, specifically the budget deficit. Current projections by the Congressional Budget Office and Office of Management and Budget that we'll grow out of our current mess over the next 10 years are as likely as a pig flying. They assume no higher spending on defense or security, prescription drugs, preschool education, or any other pressing and popular issues, or that the tax increases already built into the tax code (such as the burgeoning Alternative Minimum Tax) aren't repealed.

Moreover, reasonable projections for 2020 or 2030 show that Social Security, Medicaid, and Medicare, which now account for 8 percent of the economy, will soak up 14 percent. And that's before we take care of the nearly 50 million Americans who lack any healthcare coverage. Thus, the average 18- to 24-year-old will owe an additional 6 percent of his income in added tax just to pay for his parents' retirements and medical bills, unless we figure out another way to close the gap. But Democrats lack the integrity to oppose something as unfair as eliminating the estate tax, or to support something as sensible as freezing the next round of tax cuts.

A similar story can be told for energy and the environment. Democrats have (commendably) made the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge safe for caribou. Unfortunately, reducing our dependence on oil from the war-prone Middle East, or arresting climate change isn't as high on the agenda. The science that links manmade pollution to changing global climate is now a done deal. We're about to fight a second war for oil, but are uninterested in pressing ahead on the technologies, standards, and regulation needed to reduce dependence on it. But Democrats, going back to the earth's balancer, Al Gore, have been closemouthed about addressing these challenges.

And then there's the imminent war with Iraq. Leave aside the administration's deft bait-and-switch of Osama and Saddam, and the question of whether the warnings of such reputable Cassandras as Warren Rudman and Gary Hart about terrorism have been fully taken into account. What's really at issue is our new doctrine of preemption and its ramifications for our place in the world. It's first-rate chest thumping, but is it a tenable global strategy? If we find ourselves the lone major nation living outside global conventions on justice, weaponry, climate change, trade, and other issues, will our influence diminish? Will our businesses suffer in global commerce as a result? Will we find ourselves viewed as ever more isolated, everywhere we go?

All these questions are of particular importance to the missing 18 million young voters. They need to be told the cupboard is bare, and the trust funds and lockboxes that are supposed to protect their retirements are shams. They need to be warned they'll one day see changes in the global climate, or political turmoil that further disrupts the flow of oil. They need to confront the risk of inheriting a world in which their nation's authority is increasingly premised on force rather than on leadership and respect.

It's too often assumed that a vigorous Democratic critique of our country's direction is tantamount to a "McGovernesque" tilt to the left. But these ideas are more like raging centrism – they're views probably held by the average CEO. A new group of Democratic leaders needs to seize this opportunity. Only an end to "me too-ism" will energize young voters with whom the party must connect. Should Democrats ever win a national election again, they'd be well served to prepare the country for the challenges they'll have to face.

In short, Democrats need less "me too" – and more "me."

• Ev Erlich was an undersecretary of Commerce in the Clinton administration.

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