WASHINGTON — When Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., went to the Senate floor Thursday afternoon to announce the death of Howard Baker, his words recalled not just his revered predecessor but an earlier, worthier cohort of American politicians.
“Sen. Baker truly earned his nickname, the Great Conciliator,” McConnell said. “I know he will be remembered with fondness by members of both political parties.”
McConnell was right on both counts: Baker, the former Senate majority leader who died Thursday at age 88, was a master of compromise. Like others of his generation, the Tennessee Republican put country before self and party when he served in the Senate from 1967 to 1985 and then as Ronald Reagan’s chief of staff. He came to prominence during Watergate by asking these immortal words of a president of his own party: “What did the president know, and when did he know it?”
But eulogizing Baker as the Great Conciliator — an echo of Henry Clay’s sobriquet, the Great Compromiser — was a curious choice by McConnell, whose recent actions have given no indication that he views conciliation as a virtue. McConnell’s partisan screeds delivered on the Senate floor and his reluctance to negotiate — traits mirrored by his Democratic counterpart, Harry Reid — and his record number of filibusters have set the tone for the current era of dysfunction in U.S. politics.
Though just 17 years apart, Baker and McConnell represent entirely different generations of American leaders. Baker, born in 1925, was at the tail end of the G.I. generation that survived the Depression, won World War II, triumphed in the Cold War and built the United States’ economic might. McConnell, born in 1942, was just ahead of — and for practical purposes part of — the baby boom generation that wrecked our politics over the past 20 years.
The current leaders’ failure was on prominent display in the Capitol last week. The day before McConnell spoke, House Speaker John Boehner, another boomer leader, was acknowledging the death of conciliation. Boehner announced his plans to sue President Obama over his use of executive orders — a rejection of any vestigial hope of compromise.
Generational boundaries are inexact. McConnell, Reid and House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi are all, technically, the last of the silent generation, though their uncompromising, values-based politics are closer to that of the boomers they lead. Obama, though technically one of the last boomers, is in his detached leadership more representative of Generation X. But if the dates are fuzzy, the damage the boomers have done to our politics becomes clearer.
Boomers inherited a system based on compromise and sacrifice — and they gave us the current standoff. They received a United States victorious in the Cold War and atop the world economy — and they gave us the Iraq War and the Great Recession. They are the parents of the first generation in U.S. history — the millennials — to have a lower standard of living than previous generations.
“Boomers are the scorched-earth, values-driven generation,” said Neil Howe, who with William Strauss chronicled the recurring patterns of generations in the United States. “They invented the culture wars and they’re taking it with them as they grow older, which is this complete polarization and gridlock.” That’s not to malign this entire generation of Americans, which has dominated the culture for decades and expanded the frontiers of civil rights. But “in terms of politics, actually building things, boomers are clueless,” Howe told me.
Contrast that with Baker’s generation, shaped by suffering and war. “The politics of the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s was informed by ‘we are all in this together’ and … at the end of the day we shake hands and find a pragmatic solution,” said the Pew Research Center’s Paul Taylor, author of a new generational study, “The Next America.”
Gen X — my generation — is ill-equipped to fix the boomers’ mess. Alienated and individualistic, we don’t have faith in institutions or in our ability to change them; like Obama, we react to events. Happily, the millennials may have a better shot at fixing things when they get older. Unhappily, history suggests it will require a crisis. It was, Howe notes, “a generation like this (the boomers) that took us into the Civil War, and it was a generation like this that took us into the Great Depression.”
War soon followed the 1852 death of Clay, the Great Compromiser. Let’s pray that the passing of the Great Conciliator’s generation, and the disastrous reign of the boomers, doesn’t end in such misery.
Dana Milbank is a Washington Post columnist.