From the rainbow flag to the Confederate battle flag, one basic lesson reinforced this summer is that some political positions are cool and others are not. Something similar goes for presidential contenders.
What makes a would-be POTUS cool? For a party intent on laying claim to a larger share of “the selfie vote,” as pollster Kristen Soltis Anderson calls it, that’s an important question. And for the Republican party, it’s also a fraught one. Ever since the first televised presidential debate, when viewers deemed Kennedy the victor over Nixon, the GOP has struggled with issues of charisma. Reagan’s magnetic presence was all too fleeting, as conservative critics of the officious first President Bush would sigh.
Of course, in 2008, voters were captivated by Candidate Obama’s mix of self-conscious bravado and above-it-all composure. Obama himself hinted at aspirations to become the Democrats’ Reagan. Both leaders were charismatic. But in the eyes of many, only Obama was cool.
This time around, several powerful forces have aligned for the GOP. Without an incumbent or the prospect of a quick and easy primary, some Republicans have a chance to freshen up their image. Unlike the last two Democrats in the Oval Office, if there’s one thing Hillary Clinton is not, it’s cool. An edge among the culture’s arbiters of coolness could actually make a small but significant impact in the run-up to Election Day.
The party faithful can and will argue about which of their would-be champions has a legitimate claim to being cool. But at this juncture, it seems clear that the most significant case study is Marco Rubio. Whatever the charms displayed by his competition, Rubio has a clear advantage. A young Cuban American at home with pop culture, he’s got three legs up over much of the field. As a straight-laced establishmentarian with some staunchly conservative views, he can expect his bid for coolness to encounter some obstacles. But more than any other candidate, Rubio represents what a “new kind of Republican” might look like without ceasing to look Republican.
What of the competition? Carly Fiorina looks sharp, leans in, and has survived breast cancer — all very cool. But her uneven track record in corporate America centers on one of the relatively few uncool tech companies, HP. (Today, although craftsman-like retro monikers are catching on, no California startup would be caught dead with a name like “Hewlett-Packard.”)
Doubtless, Rick Perry boasts the coolest glasses in the race. And his telegenic — but not too telegenic — looks are far cooler than the Wonder Bread visage of a Mitt Romney. Then again, Perry’s a Texan, and not the kind you find in Austin.
In the rulebook of coolness, that’s just about a deal-breaker, as Ted Cruz can also attest. Cruz can’t seem to catch a break from the pop-cultural clerisy even when he goes out on a limb to do so. Perhaps reasoning that President Obama did fairly well goofing around with a selfie stick for BuzzFeed, Cruz allowed that cool news website to record his impressions of various Simpsons characters — quite a leap from the Winston Churchill impression Cruz deployed to surprise diners at his most recent appearance before the Claremont Institute.
The result, according to the impeccably credentialed A.V. Club, was “fremdscham, the cringing secondhand embarrassment you feel when someone is obliviously making a fool of himself.” According to the writer, “Ted Cruz has revealed himself to be a natural at generating it” with “the worst Simpsons impressions you’ve ever heard.” Cool points: zero.
Then there’s Rand Paul, the Republican with the most hipsters in his corner. He is the candidate with the zany college backstory, the even zanier dad, and the satellite office in Silicon Valley. His tousled look strikes a contrast with the schoolboy haircut covering Rubio’s dome. And on the issues, from curbing surveillance to reforming criminal justice, he’s the man most responsible for riding libertarian hobbyhorses into the conservative mainstream.
Paul’s coolness, however, has become a victim of his success. The less marginal he becomes, the harder it is for him to attract the affinity of the creative and the tech-savvy, many of whom self-identify politically (and not just politically) as outsiders. That Paul must increase his appeal among traditional conservatives if he wishes to win the nomination will only make matters worse.
The rest of the field shakes out pretty quickly. Scott Walker lacks a college degree yet failed to start a band or join a sit-in. Chris Christie doesn’t shout at Muslims, but he sometimes yells at teachers. Jeb Bush? Don’t make the cool laugh.
Back, then, to Rubio. He’s less corporate than Fiorina, and less Texan than Perry. He’s less awkward than Cruz, and less conflicted than Paul. Unlike Walker, he’s not accused, as was W., of uncool anti-intellectualism. Unlike Christie, he’s warm and personable. And unlike his fellow Floridian, Bush, he’s got that new-candidate smell. He is, in short, the most viably cool candidate the Republican party has to offer.
But the early signs suggest that’s still not enough for our cultural deciders. In the relatively safe venue of Fox News, Rubio declined to name his favorite member of the hip-hop group Wu-Tang Clan. It’s perhaps doubtful that any canny politician would step into that trap, but Rubio was swiftly punished anyway by a wide cross section of cool news websites and social-media users. Gawker snarked: “Did you go to a fratty mid-Atlantic college in the late ’90s, have a Bob Marley blacklight poster, and squee to MTV Party to Go Platinum Remix while drinking Red Stripe at parties? Congratulations, Dawson! You know as much about rap as Marco Rubio, Fox News rap correspondent.”
Salon, for its part, called the episode Rubio’s “Sarah Palin moment.” Certainly, that site’s overt political leanings played a role in its unfriendly judgment. But the verdict raises a difficult question for conservatives: Is there any conservative arbiter of coolness? It’s hard to name an organization of pop critics that breaks the apparent rule. Exceptional individuals can hardly compensate. Even a celebrity Republican as trendy and broadly admired as Caitlyn Jenner hasn’t managed to rub off on the rest of the GOP.
For all its merciless treatment of Republicans, the pop-industrial complex can be remarkably forgiving to members of a different political party. President Obama himself has done legendarily uncool things, such as wearing mom jeans and authorizing drone strikes. He has even lectured African-American men on morals. That adds up to a lot of minus points. Yet Obama’s coolness remains intact.
It’s hard to be entirely sure how much of Obama’s resilience should be chalked up to his ideology and how much to his generational distance from the Republicans he replaced and defeated. Theoretically, Rubio’s youthfulness in comparison with Hillary Clinton enhances his potential cool factor. And yet Clinton’s most popular intra-party challenger is the septuagenarian Bernie Sanders. Some supporters see coolness in the Sanders of the early 1970s, who, indeed, held policy views remarkably consistent with those of the present-day candidate.
Perhaps a better guide for Republicans can be found in how coolness helped Obama as a candidate. His 2008 campaign was about more than politics. It was a cultural phenomenon — in part because of the historic significance of his being the first black presidential nominee, but in part because a critical mass of creative types rallied to his cause. Iconic posters and pop anthems cracked the public consciousness not because of a celebrity-driven PR campaign, but because leading artists openly shared their infectious enthusiasm for him. Today, many Americans instinctively trust popular art even more than they trust popular artists. Very few people have a personal connection to Shepard Fairey, but millions of people felt a personal connection to the hopeful portrait of Obama he created.
Barring a surprise cultural counter-revolution, Rubio — or any other Republican, for that matter — will not receive a rapturous reception among America’s top creators. And without them in one’s corner, the path to certifiable coolness narrows. But a certain kind of niche approval can carry its own hip cachet. Republicans might not have to worry very much about failing whatever litmus test pop critics impose if they attract the enthusiasm of a few key creators who can suggest that their candidate’s campaign isn’t at odds with the basic artistic spirit that fuels popular culture.
More broadly, Republicans should rediscover the virtues of the creative class instead of doubling down on resentment toward the critics who want to decide which creators are celebrated and which aren’t. Some conservatives are already beginning to orient the party more toward this approach. AEI president Arthur Brooks — whose career included about a decade as a professional musician — is helping Republicans understand how a long experience of discipline and community in the arts can supply the foundation and flexibility to flourish. In this and future elections, the GOP would advance its quest for coolness by doing more to build up its own culture creators.
Ironically, the GOP struggles to be cool because the critics’ class has managed to place so much of art under political judgment. Some Republicans may be tempted to field a “cool candidate” by trying to turn that tide, politicizing creative culture in a more conservative way. Unfortunately, in addition to a high risk of failure, this fight-fire-with-fire strategy would further destabilize the delicate balance between politics and culture. Embracing the potent cultural power of artistry probably won’t make a cool candidate descend from the heavens or leap out of the crowd. But it will help Republicans tap into Americans’ sense that the art of freedom has a special relationship with the freedom of art.
– Mr. Poulos writes for the Daily Beast, The Week, and other publications. He lives in Los Angeles.