Barack Obama should run for president in 2008 for all the tactical reasons cited by pundits but primarily because the boomers need serious competition from "below" on the vision thing. It's unhealthy to have so much of our political and strategic discourse dominated by the '60s generation.
Let me tell you why.
Morris Massey, an expert on conflict between generations, pioneered the argument. "what you are is where you were when ," meaning all of us reach a point in life where we discover a world larger than ourselves. At that point, we become cognizant of the morals we've developed across our early years, and those morals - or worldview - tend to persist across our adult years.
For most people, that fateful transition occurs in the teenage years, which explains our tendency to stick with the popular music of those years throughout adulthood.
Admit it - you stayed cool enough across your 20s, and maybe you faked it deep into your 30s, but then you woke up in your 40s and realized you absolutely hate your kids' music!
Don't worry. It happens to everyone.
So Massey's basic point is that our worldview is essentially formed by the time we hit college. Everything that came before is considered normal, and much of what comes after is viewed as just plain weird. Given enough grounding by parents and religion, most people hold on to their normal as they grow older, taking in stride the increasingly weird but eventually succumbing to nostalgia for the good old days.
One trick I've learned as a foreign policy strategist is that, whenever I encounter somebody with a clear position on something, I simply check out how that issue was playing out back when this person was a teenager. It usually matches up quite well.
Let me give you an example: Talk to anybody about China today, and you'll typically encounter first impressions formed in adolescence.
For those who came of age in the 1950s - think Korean War - China remains an aggressive communist regime that cannot be trusted, no matter how many stripes that tiger changes.
Fast forward to the '60s crowd, and you'll find a lot of China-coming-apart-at-the-seams arguments, meaning the country's rapid rise likely triggers its internal collapse. Coming of age in the 1960s meant your dominant impressions of China consisted of widespread famine - "Eat your dinner! Kids in China are starving!" - and the temporary insanity of Mao's Cultural Revolution.
It's really only when you start bumping into children of the '70s like me (born 1962) that you tend to find a more benign view of China's rise. Why? "Our" China has always been opening up to the outside world, starting with Nixon's 1972 breakthrough trip.
So it's no surprise that my generation is the first to be so open to strategic partnership with China in global affairs. To us, that seems normal.
You see where I'm going with this.
Following World War II, American politics was dominated by that greatest generation for four decades (1952-1992, or from Eisenhower through Bush the elder).
Following that long reign, the presidency basically skipped the '50s generation (e.g., Mondale, Dukakis) and moved right on to the '60s boomers (first Clinton, then Bush the younger).
So, with regard to China, we've basically moved beyond the reflexive hostility of the early Cold War crowd, now that Donald Rumsfeld's gone, and into the persistent suspicions of aging boomers who still largely favor containing China and hedging against its rise.
Looking ahead to the prospective field of 2008 presidential candidates, we see it chock full of that '60s mindset, and that's just not good enough, given our current strategic situation - namely, too many new enemies and not enough new friends. Iraq is not Vietnam, and the Long War against extremism is not a rerun of the Cold War against communism.
It's time for our debates on national security strategy to draw upon a worldview shaped more by the 1970s - an understanding of international affairs better in line with today's globalization paradigm (e.g., North-South conflicts, oil price shocks, transnational terrorism, global environmentalism).
Boomer politicians obviously care about these issues. I'm just saying how they frame possible solutions is reflected - and too often restricted - by where they were when.
Sen. Barack Obama, born in 1961, could be the most-needed new voice for 2008.