Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on
 

Cool Obama vs. square Romney

By Alex Castellanos, CNN Contributor
October 26, 2012 -- Updated 1548 GMT (2348 HKT)
President Obama, appearing on the Daily Show with Jon Stewart, is the
President Obama, appearing on the Daily Show with Jon Stewart, is the "president of cool America," says Alex Castellanos.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Alex Castellanos says election may echo old split between cultural elite, silent majority
  • He says Obama is widely viewed as the "cool president," Romney is the opposite of cool
  • Castellanos: Could Romney's persona be a plus in this year's election?

Editor's note: Alex Castellanos, a CNN contributor, is a Republican consultant and the co-founder of Purple Strategies. Follow him on Twitter: @alexcast

(CNN) -- "Beware the fury of the patient man." -- John Dryden

In January, 1956, Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser was pledging to take over Palestine. In the United States, a "sensational new RCA Victor Star," just days away from cracking the music charts with his first hit, "Heartbreak Hotel," was touring with Hank Snow and the stars of Grand Old Opry. Norma Jeane Mortenson was preparing to change her name.

Also that month, a fresh-faced U.S. senator gave Richard Nixon an autographed copy of his second book, "Profiles in Courage".

Alex Castellanos
Alex Castellanos

In that best-seller, John F. Kennedy applauded leaders with the courage to represent "the actual sentiments of the silent majority of their constituents in opposition to the screams of a vocal minority." That "silent majority" was a constituency neither Nixon nor the country would forget: Fifty-six years later, Mitt Romney is counting on it to win the presidency.

Nixon could have thanked Kennedy's hardcover for one of his many resurrections. His appeal to the "silent majority" turned around his political fortunes, driving his approval ratings from the mid-50s to more than 80%.

Opinion: Both parties have a huge race problem

His pivotal speech contrasted a "vocal minority" of idealistic but impractical, young, anti-Vietnam protestors, cultural elites and intellectuals with their stodgy parents, older, blue-collar, working-class Americans. Until Nixon drew the silent majority from the shadows, their simmering outrage at the left's lack of respect for time-tested American values was undetected.

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



Political historian Teddy White characterized the split between "what the silent people think" and what the country's "more important thinkers think." He wrote, "Never have America's leading cultural media, its university thinkers, its influence makers been more intrigued by experiment and change; but in no election have the mute masses more completely separated themselves from such leadership and thinking."

At least, until today.

By some measures, little has changed since the seminal year of 1969. Marilyn Monroe remains a powerful symbol of fragile, sexual romanticism. The Arab world still lusts for the Palestinian territory. Elvis is making more money than ever. And we are still fighting the Vietnam War.

Romney camp slams 'glossy panic button'
Conan: New Romney ad missing something
Best moments from the final debate
Can Romney win without Ohio?

The division between Nixon's silent majority, on one hand, and, on the other, Democrat-leaning young voters, Hollywood stars, academia, the music industry, fashionistas, and news media elites has never repaired itself.

In the "The Conquest of Cool," Thomas Frank chronicled how the social ferment of the 60's not only failed to overthrow establishment culture, but was absorbed by it. The counter-culture of the 60s revolution turned into the "Me Generation" of the 80s. They settled into entitled consumerism, grew fat and became today's establishment.

Now the counterculture defines itself by the brands it wears, not the institutions it protests. Being different today requires the latest IPhone and a vanilla, extra-shot latte. The counter culture wears a Nike swoosh, not a tie-died shirt.

The Axis of Cool, born in protest against the war that has defined all future wars, has become a culture of locust-like consumption. It devours public and private resources. It remains allied against the previous generation's antiquated ethos of self-discipline, personal responsibility and moderation.

Over five decades, the counterculture became our culture. It expanded its home within the Democratic Party, finding its identity challenging the quaint social norms of tragically uncool Republicans.

We are an easy cultural target. We are suspicious of all cutting-edge music, abstract art, avant-garde style and trendy thought. We advocate unimaginative self-restraint and standards we often fail to meet -- and we get no credit for trying. Our imperfections are labeled hypocritical, not human. Hip America is more fun. And in 2008, it found its leader, the coolest president ever.

President Obama hangs out with movie stars, makes no decisions without consulting the academic elite and sings like Al Green. Obama is the president of cool America.

To oppose him, where did Republicans turn?

We chose the strait-laced personification of everything Obama is not. We made ourselves even more dated.

Mitt Romney is the chaperone to be eluded at every prom. He's common-sense parental advice, not counter-intuitive academic insight. He has stepped down, fresh and perfect, from a Norman Rockwell painting.

As Ashley Parker notes in the New York Times, an emotional outburst from the proper Romney is limited to saying "the heck with it." Even my own daughter writes that Romney's "tendency to say 'shoot' and 'darn it' tells us he's from another generation."

Being terminally uncool, however, may be the secret of Romney's success.

Nixon's majority was silent a long time, until aroused by Obama, whose self-admitted superiority led him to denigrate their bitter attachment to their values.

They slept, this quiet group of Americans who worked hard, paid their taxes and played by the rules, until awakened by a president who violated their core ethic of responsibility, telling them the cure for too much debt is even more debt.

They are mature. They are responsible. And now they are frightened. They worry that everything they've worked for is being consumed, leaving only a bare orchard of fruitless trees and leafless branches.

They have heard an alarm. And now they stand to defend what is plain and boring and true. They rise to tell us their values, like the lines on the side of the road, are there for a purpose. They are there to keep us straight.

Now it is the silent majority who takes to the streets in protest of their government's fiscal fantasies. They are adults, rising to say that their country's time-honored values are not luxuries we can discard, but obligations that must be met.

Their children, who think themselves the first generation with the mental capacity to understand the world's problems, stare at them. They confuse their parent's civility with softness. They are baffled to hear that success requires self-discipline -- not just self-indulgence, good intentions and intellect.

Polls say this race is tied. The president of cool is suddenly in a tight race against America's most uncool parent. Are the "mute masses" Nixon aroused still a majority? Early turnout and absentee voting data from the Republican National Committee indicates that GOP vote totals are up over 2% from 2008 while Democrat totals are down 6%. GOP pollsters report Republicans are heading into 2012 with a significant advantage in voter interest and intensity.

No-drama Obama has got the cool. All Romney has is the fury of the patient man.

If he wins, Romney could make being uncool, cool again.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Alex Castellanos.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 0157 GMT (0957 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says spanking is an acceptable form of disciplining a child, as long as you follow the rules.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 0158 GMT (0958 HKT)
Steven Holmes says spanking, a practice that is ingrained in our culture, accomplishes nothing positive and causes harm.
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 1831 GMT (0231 HKT)
Sally Kohn says America tried "Cowboy Adventurism" as a foreign policy strategy; it failed. So why try it again?
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 1427 GMT (2227 HKT)
Van Jones says the video of John Crawford III, who was shot by a police officer in Walmart, should be released.
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 1448 GMT (2248 HKT)
NASA will need to embrace new entrants and promote a lot more competition in future, argues Newt Gingrich.
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 2315 GMT (0715 HKT)
If U.S. wants to see real change in Iraq and Syria, it will have to empower moderate forces, says Fouad Siniora.
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 0034 GMT (0834 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says there are basic rules to follow when interacting with law enforcement: respect their authority.
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1305 GMT (2105 HKT)
LZ Granderson says Congress has rebuked the NFL on domestic violence issue, but why not a federal judge?
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1149 GMT (1949 HKT)
Mel Robbins says the only person you can legally hit in the United States is a child. That's wrong.
September 15, 2014 -- Updated 1723 GMT (0123 HKT)
Eric Liu says seeing many friends fight so hard for same-sex marriage rights made him appreciate marriage.
September 12, 2014 -- Updated 2055 GMT (0455 HKT)
David Wheeler wonders: If Scotland votes to secede, can America take its place and rejoin England?
September 12, 2014 -- Updated 2036 GMT (0436 HKT)
World-famous physicist Stephen Hawking recently said the world as we know it could be obliterated instantaneously. Meg Urry says fear not.
September 11, 2014 -- Updated 1721 GMT (0121 HKT)
Sally Kohn says bombing ISIS will worsen instability in Iraq and strengthen radical ideology in terrorist groups.
September 11, 2014 -- Updated 1327 GMT (2127 HKT)
Artist Prune Nourry's project reinterprets the terracotta warriors in an exhibition about gender preference in China.
September 10, 2014 -- Updated 1336 GMT (2136 HKT)
The Apple Watch is on its way. Jeff Yang asks: Are we ready to embrace wearables technology at last?
ADVERTISEMENT