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Liberals Have Failed to Teach Millennials About the Horror of George W. Bush

Smith Collection/Gado

Having definitively established that Baby Boomers are the worst generation of all, most responsible by far for the fact that Donald Trump currently has a 43.7 percent chance of becoming president, let’s turn to the question of what role millennials are playing in keeping this election uncomfortably close.

Despite being the one cohort that supports Trump overwhelmingly, Boomers tend to get a pass from Trump critics, who in turn focus most of their ire and analysis on millennials—young voters who regard Trump with incomparable loathing, but who aren’t flocking to Clinton.

Anti-Trump forces aren’t wrong to see millennials as the key to this election. Their error is in short-handing their critique to suggest millennials are somehow more responsible for Trump than older, more conservative cohorts. But if you stop dividing cohorts by age, and do it instead by ideological leaning, the problem becomes clear. The younger and younger that left-of-center voters get, the less and less propensity they have to vote at all, and the greater propensity to vote (if they vote) for a third party.

A recent New York Times-CBS poll found that “third-party candidates draw their strongest support from younger voters. Twenty-six percent of voters ages 18 to 29 say they plan to vote for [Libertarian Party nominee Gary] Johnson, and another 10 percent back [Green Party nominee Jill] Stein.”

Mobilizing young voters has always been a vexing challenge; in a way it would be weird if teenagers entered adulthood with firm political priors and the same level of civic commitment to voting every two years that their parents have. What makes this pattern so troubling this election is that we’re just 16 years removed from a world history–changing lesson in what can happen when too many disillusioned young progressives vote for third-party candidates. We may be facing a situation where voters who were barely potty-trained during the 2000 recount never internalized the consequences of that election. And the question is, whose fault would that be?

There’s obviously no single reason so many young progressive voters at this point say they intend to vote third-party. As Mother Jones’ Kevin Drum noted, some of it is surely attributable to the bruising Democratic primary, during which millennials, overwhelmingly drawn to Bernie Sanders, were inundated with withering criticisms of Clinton, including the suggestion that the establishment had essentially robbed the nomination from them on her behalf. Greg Sargent of the Washington Post argues on the other side of the ledger that “Clinton and Democrats deserve the blame for failing to give millennials a compelling enough reason to vote for her.” And to buttress his point, it is true that until this week, Clinton and her surrogates were devoting more resources to recruiting Republican surrogates—part of an effort to fracture the GOP coalition—than to mobilizing millions of untapped youth.

But here’s a different theory, under which the very liberals who are laying the groundwork to blame millennials also share in the blame themselves. If 18-to 29-year-olds vote for third-party candidates in sufficient numbers to tip the election to Trump, it will be the consequence of a liberal failure to build an oral tradition around the Bush administration, from Ralph Nader’s vote haul in Florida through the injustice of the recount and the ensuing plutocratic fiscal policy; the 9/11 intelligence failure; the war of choice in Iraq sold with false intelligence and launched without an occupation plan; the malpractice that killed hundreds in New Orleans; the scandalousness that makes the fainting couch routine over Clinton’s emails seem Oscar-worthy; and finally to the laissez-faire regulatory regime and ensuing financial crisis that continues to shape the economic lives of young voters to this day.

It’s not that the abject failure of George W. Bush’s presidency has been forgotten, or that liberals somehow failed to mention how bad things were from 2001 to 2009. But the historic nature of the failure—the fact that historians place Bush at or near the top of their lists of worst presidents in U.S. history—perhaps hasn’t filtered down.

Here it’s useful to contrast the way Republicans scapegoated Jimmy Carter (who was not a great president, but more unlucky than genuinely incompetent or malevolent) to the way Democrats have treated Bush (among the worst presidents of all time).

Democrats up to and including President Barack Obama have been quick to remind voters that they “inherited” a historic mess, and have been fighting for years now against Republicans who refuse to help because they want to return to the same policy regime that “got us into the mess in the first place.” Republicans bristle every time they hear that, even as they continue to use Carter as a whipping boy more than 30 years later.

But it was Obama’s decision to largely turn the page on the Bush era once he came into office that flushed so many of the tawdry details of his administration down the memory hole. “Look forward, not backward” was the mantra Obama used to explain why Bush officials would face no recriminations for devising and implementing a torture regime, and why various scandals fell off the news radar in early 2009. Some of this was in keeping with tradition, but much of it stemmed from Obama’s practical need for Republican votes in Congress, and his more abstract, misguided sense that he could transcend polarization, and build a legacy for himself as a political healer who rose above partisanship.

As Steve Kornacki wrote several years ago in Salon, the 1984 Republican convention “featured a parade of speakers attesting to the general awfulness of [Ronald] Reagan’s predecessor.” Democrats adopted a similar model for Obama’s reelection convention in 2012, but at least relative to the abject horror of the eight Bush years, they undersold it, and have continued to undersell it.

“The Reagan legend that the right now basks in employs Carter as its central villain,” Kornacki added, “a thoroughly rotten president who nearly ruined America—only for Reagan to ride to its rescue. This has spawned a new generation of Carter-bashers on the right, and it’s once again common for national Republican leaders to trash the 39th president. But while the Carter-bashing of the 1980s was intended for independents and swing voters, today’s version is geared toward the GOP base. To bash Carter is to affirm the Reagan legend—and to affirm the Reagan legend is to pander to the GOP base.”

Now ask yourself, How prominently has Bush featured in Democratic rhetoric this election cycle?

The result is that for those of us whose formative political experiences include the 2000 election, the recount, 9/11, and the Iraq war, the dangers of apathy and third-party voting are seared into our memories for a lifetime. Those who came of political age amid a global recession, the election of a young, untainted, cosmopolitan, black president, and a retrospective rejection of Clinton-era triangulation, have plenty of lived experience shaping their politics, none of which can be directly attributed to a third-party spoiler. It’s up to liberals who fear history repeating itself to connect the dots for them.