Modern politicians are masters of imagery. That's why you'll rarely see a presidential speech these days without a sea of citizens right behind the podium.
So it was no surprise to see House Republican leaders put forward their new "Pledge to America" yesterday at a lumber store in Virginia. With open-collar shirt and sleeves rolled up, all that would-be Majority Leader John Boehner (R) of Ohio lacked was a tool belt and a hard hat.
What was surprising was the array of photos GOP leaders chose to sprinkle throughout their new booklet.
Heavy on the patriotism
Much of it was standard fare. Between shots of Mt. Rushmore, the Statue of Liberty, and American flags, it doesn't take a "Harvard symbologist" like Robert Langdon to see that Republicans set the patriotism dial to a Spinal Tap level 11 (see video clip at the end of this post). Other photos reveal that Republicans love:
• Cowboys and horses.
• Red meat. No, really, the third image is a shot of a butcher shop case full of mouth-watering steaks.
• Showing off this chart to illustrate the complexity of health-care reform. (Did the GOP secretly hire the "Where's Waldo?" illustrator to make it?)
• The way Washington's most iconic buildings look in morning light.
Missing in action: young people
But after reviewing the 50 or so images in the "Pledge," I couldn't help but notice: Where are the young people? Not just kids, teens, and millennials. There didn't appear to be anyone under 40. In all the shots of Republican members listening intently, the constituents were well into their AARP years.
This is not just an artistic oversight. It reveals a potentially big hole in the Republican plan to restore trust in Congress: establishing a covenant with future generations.
Politicians frequently invoke "our kids and grandkids" and the GOP Pledge does, too. But one of the deepest causes of the severe challenges in Washington is the tendency of politicians to overvalue the present and undervalue the future – because the voters who care the most represent the past.
Take health-care reform. The sweeping changes passed by President Obama and congressional Democrats this year arguably affect young people most. Yet almost everyone who showed up for last year's town-hall meetings about health-care reform was already on Medicare. That's a major disconnect in democracy.
The elephant in the room
The elephant in the room, of course, is the coming fiscal crisis of entitlement programs like Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. Yet the GOP Pledge didn't really address this issue. In fact, at yesterday's event, Rep. Paul Ryan (R) of Wisconsin, the leading Republican voice on entitlement reform, was conspicuously absent. As Monitor reporter Linda Feldmann wrote:
Notably missing from the pledge was much discussion about the future of government entitlements, namely Social Security and Medicare, which are major drivers of a looming fiscal crisis. In his own plan, called the Roadmap for America’s Future, Ryan has been a strong advocate for the use of the free market in reforming entitlements, proposing introduction of private investment accounts into Social Security and turning Medicare into a voucher program.
When President Bush proposed partial privatization of Social Security after his reelection in 2004, the Republican-controlled Congress didn’t even take it up. Ryan is now the leading congressional champion of the concept.
Tackling entitlement reform will take tremendous political courage. It will also take the support and engagement of America's young voters. By not even attempting to frame their governing agenda in terms appealing to the under-40 crowd, Republicans don't appear to be much interested in wholesale reform.
That's not a slight at the GOP. Until young voters get more involved, neither major political party will have much incentive to consider the future as heavily as the present.
So here's a memo to younger voters across America. If you want to have a prominent place in a future party "Pledge," start riding horses, put a flag on your front porch, and most important, show up at town-hall meeting.