Can you absorb one more election pre-mortem?
In these days of radical downsizing—unless your organization is too big to downsize–may I suggest several more candidates for the axe: Gallup, Harris, Zogby, Mason-Dixon, Quinnipac, and the other pollsters whose research occupies far too much of our mindspace.
The more reliable predictor of presidential electability is my “Cool Guy” political paradigm. It’s an unscientific but utterly infallible measure.
What is the Cool Guy prism? It insists that in national campaigns, the cooler candidate always prevails against a dorkier adversary. Experience, policy expertise, wealth, family connections and other factors that we always thought vital only truly count when they add or detract from our perceptions about a candidate’s “Cool.” When so many of us suffer from the madness borne of election fever, doesn’t it make sense that we seek a more human remedy?
By “cool,” I’m not talking about the amount of McLuhanesque cool a candidate projects although I’ll admit it seems to be a television-age phenomenon. First, let’s define our terms. A Cool Guy is unflappable, genuine, and quietly confident. A woman, by the way, can be a Cool Guy but only if she’s really cool.
You want proof? In the last election, Barack Obama was indisputably cooler than John McCain not to mention Hilary Clinton and his other Democratic primary opponents. Barack was way cool. Absolute cool. He couldn’t lose.
The real test of the Cool Guy paradigm, however, is whether it also applies to past presidential contests.
Whether you detest George W Bush or not, he presented enough ranch-hand cool to dispatch John Kerry in 2004. Four years earlier, against the vice-nerd, Al Gore, who labored to push every sentence up a hill, W was practically Rat-Pack cool. Today, even with a big, new bankroll that should re-brand Gore as cool, what does he do? He tells us the end is near. Not cool.
Before George W, we saw the cool-meister, Bill Clinton, face down Mean Bob Dole. No slouch in the understatement department himself, Dole had no chance against Slick Willie. Even Clinton’s first national opponent, Bush 41, an incumbent President with a Desert Storm notch on his belt, couldn’t outcool Bill Clinton.
George HW Bush was nobody’s idea of cool. And was the flame ever lower than whatever animated his opponent in 1988, Michael Dukakis? But once Dukakis put on that geeky tank driver’s helmet, he was lost.
You can argue whether Ronald Reagan fits the Cool Guy paradigm but remember, the deciding factor is relative cool. Reagan was, by that standard, sure to be a landslide victor over irascible Walter Mondale or his predecessor Democrat, the Puritan scold, Jimmy Carter.
And so it always goes. Carter was cooler than the uber-bumbler, Gerald Ford. Richard Nixon, by every known measure, was light years from Cool but, compared to George McGovern, perpetually at war with the Viet Nam War, or the pathologically Happy Warrior, Hubert Humphrey, he was a shoo-in. 1968 was also the year of George Wallace’s third party appeal to white-hot working class resentment, not the coolest image a candidate can craft. Wallace didn’t help the cool of his cause by naming a warmongering Air Force General as his running mate. Lyndon Johnson was not cooler than his 1964 opponent except in the public mind. LBJ successfully hung the “warmonger” tag on Barry Goldwater, and Goldwater complied by threatening North Viet Nam with a return to the Stone Age.
Before LBJ there was JFK, unflappable, whip-smart, witty, and secure in himself. He was as cool as they get. What we’ve learned about Kennedy since then has only burnished his rep for Cool.
Does all this mean that Cool is objectively better? Only in the eyes of the electorate.
Cool guys, in the heat of a campaign and under the sway of consultants, fritter away and even lose their cool. How else to explain the loss of a lifelong cool guy, maverick, hero–John McCain–who under glare of the national campaign, became the hot-under-the-collar candidate. At the beginning of the 2008 race, the odds seemed to be against the inexperienced Obama, but the odds don’t have a chance against genuinely cool people.
What does any of this mean for the Republican Party cool-o-meter this year? Somehow, Mitt Romney has managed to make being filthy rich seem uncool. His inauthenticity has put him at something of a disadvantage against Rick Santorum who doesn’t give a damn what political consultants think as long as he can talk out of his ass. He’d be too damned comfortable playing role of the “Shakespeare In Love” censor who shuts down “Romeo and Juliet.” That makes him even less cool than Romney.
That’s the competitive frame for candidates going up against a President who, in one year, iced Osama Bin Laden and channeled Al Green. A Prez.
What about a convention-brokered, outlier candidate/savior like Sarah Palin. Unless a slow jam becomes her campaign soundtrack and she learns how to purr into the mic, most voters will think she’d best cool her heels right where she is.
So, who do I predict will come out on top in 2012? That’s easy. The Cool Guy.