Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on
 

Cool Obama vs. square Romney

By Alex Castellanos, CNN Contributor
updated 11:48 AM EDT, Fri October 26, 2012
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
updated 2:45 PM EDT, Thu April 17, 2014
Michael Bloomberg and Shannon Watts say Americans are ready for sensible gun laws, but politicians are cowed by the NRA. Everytown for Gun Safety will prove the NRA is not that powerful.
updated 9:28 AM EDT, Thu April 17, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says Steve Israel is right: Some Republicans encourage anti-Latino prejudice. But that kind of bias is not limited to the GOP.
updated 7:23 PM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Peggy Drexler counts the ways Phyllis Schlafly's argument that lower pay for women helps them nab a husband is ridiculous.
updated 12:42 PM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Rick McGahey says Rep. Paul Ryan is signaling his presidential ambitions by appealing to hard core Republican values
updated 11:39 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Paul Saffo says current Google Glasses are doomed to become eBay collectibles, but they are only the leading edge of a surge in wearable tech that will change our lives
updated 2:49 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Kathleen Blee says the KKK and white power or neo-Nazi groups give haters the purpose and urgency to use violence.
updated 7:56 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse and Rep. Henry Waxman say read deep, and you'll see the federal Keystone pipeline report spells out the pipeline is bad news
updated 7:53 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Frida Ghitis says President Obama needs to stop making empty threats against Russia and consider other options
updated 5:29 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say the Kansas Jewish Center killings are part of a string of lethal violence in the U.S. that outstrips al Qaeda-influenced attacks. Why don't we pay more attention?
updated 12:41 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Danny Cevallos says families of the passengers on Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 need legal counsel
updated 11:23 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
David Frum says Russia is on a rampage of mischief while Western leaders and Western alliances charged with keeping the peace hem and haw
updated 7:56 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Most adults make the mistakes of hitting the snooze button and of checking emails first thing in the morning, writes Mel Robbins
updated 1:54 PM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
David Wheeler says as middle-class careers continue to disappear, we need a monthly cash payment to everyone
updated 7:55 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Democrats need to show more political spine when it comes to the issue of taxes.
updated 11:55 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Donna Brazile recalls the 50th Anniversary of the Civil Rights Act as four presidents honored the heroes of the movement and Lyndon Johnson, who signed the law
updated 9:17 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Elmer Smith remembers Chuck Stone, the legendary journalist from Philadelphia who was known as a thorn in the side of police and an advocate for the little guy
updated 2:56 PM EDT, Sun April 13, 2014
Al Franken says Comcast, the nation's largest cable provider, wants to acquire Time Warner Cable, the nation's second-largest cable provider. Should we be concerned?
updated 11:22 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Philip Cook and Kristin Goss says the Pennsylvania stabbing attack, which caused grave injury -- but not death, carries a lesson on guns for policymakers
updated 3:06 PM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Wikipedia lists 105 football movies, but all too many of them are forgettable, writes Mike Downey
updated 10:32 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
John Sutter and hundreds of iReporters set out to run marathons after the bombings -- and learned a lot about the culture of running
updated 12:49 PM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Timothy Stanley says it was cowardly to withdraw the offer of an honorary degree to Ayaan Hirsi Ali. The university should have done its homework on her narrow views and not made the offer
updated 10:16 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Al Awlaki
Almost three years after his death in a 2011 CIA drone strike in Yemen, Anwar al-Awlaki continues to inspire violent jihadist extremists in the U.S, writes Peter Bergen
updated 9:21 PM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
David Bianculli says Colbert is a smart, funny interviewer, but ditching his blowhard persona to take over the mainstream late-night role may cost him fans
updated 1:31 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Rep. Paul Ryan says the Republican budget places its trust in the people, not in Washington
updated 5:28 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Aaron David Miller says Obama isn't to blame for Kerry's lack of progress in resolving Mideast talks
updated 11:22 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
David Weinberger says beyond focusing on the horrors of the attack a year ago, it's worth remembering the lessons it taught about strength, the dangers of idle speculation and Boston's solidarity
updated 12:32 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Katherine Newman says the motive for the school stabbing attack in Pennsylvania is not yet known, but research on such rampages turns up similarities in suspects and circumstances
updated 2:39 PM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Wendy Townsend says the Rattlesnake Roundup -- where thousands of pounds of snakes are killed and tormented -- is barbaric
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT