I’m sure that I’m not the first one to make note of this, but one aspect of this election is fundamentally about style: hip versus square. I don’t think Gov. Romney would quarrel with this characterization. He is comfortable in his own skin. As the weeks wear on, however, and as we see more of the two men in the same frame at debates, the difference between the two candidates is striking. Sometimes it seems as if President Obama is running against his father. Gov. Romney is a ’60s person who wasn’t, and President Obama is so post-’60s that he more or less defies labels. Romney was 20 years old during the Summer of Love in 1967. The President was six. And while GOP vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan says Rage Against the Machine is his favorite band (Tom Morello can’t figure that out), the national Republicans in general come across as preferring an orderly Mitch Miller sing-along where everyone knows his or her part. I know New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie loves Springsteen, who, apparently, doesn’t love him back. Gov. Romney lists as his likes the Beach Boys, The Killers, Garth Brooks, and Aerosmith, not what I expected to find on the ‘net. The Governor enjoys water sports.
The Obamas rub elbows with Beyonce and Jay-Z, a scene with a lot of improvisation. We also know the President likes Bruce, Stevie Wonder, Charlie Parker, Sheryl Crow, and Dylan. He’s a basketball and poker guy. As parents they are pretty much no-nonsense in raising their children, but they make being responsible seem “cool”—like doing homework, planting a garden of healthy vegetables, and exercising.
So, despite all the crucial policy differences between the President and the challenger, there is the important “je ne sais quoi” of style that separates the two camps. I’m thinking about silent-majority-type Archie Bunker and his liberal, anti-war son-in-law Mike Stivic of “All in the Family”—but Mitt Romney is so much smoother and more confident than Archie. He would be the boss of Archie’s boss. And yet the cultural chasm between those two sit-com characters was as big as the one between the Romneys and the Obamas. The differences show up in attitudes about women’s rights, immigration, same-sex marriage, even our sense of community. Will America vote “hip” or “square” in November?
I like John Kerry, but for all his intellect and sophistication, I think he was seen as less hip than George W. Bush, who had a swagger and a grin. Reagan was so square he was hip in his own way, being a Hollywood guy. He’d cock his head and win over the audience. Jimmy Carter was hipper than Gerry Ford, being such a wild card. That was when “born again” was a Democratic thing. Bill Clinton was more hip than Paul Tsongas in 1992, and cooler with his shades and sax than President George H. W. Bush, the war hero, who is now a cool ex-President who sky-dives. Mike Dukakis? Not cool. But competent. Nixon vs. Humphrey and McGovern? Not going to go there.
Web illustration courtesy of utopianrealms.org