Too cool to rule?

January 04, 2004|By Peter Savodnik

WASHINGTON -- Republicans may control the White House and Congress. They may be right or wrong about tax cuts and preemptive military strikes. They may be moral or self-righteous or bumptious or bold.

One thing Republicans are not: cool.

This is why the GOP, for now, is headed toward victory in November. Beyond the obvious -- all the retiring Southern Democratic senators, the Republicans' money edge and the new prescription drug Medicare benefit -- coolness has much to do with it. Unlike Democrats -- who are as cool as anyone gets in Washington, a town not known for hepcats -- Republicans have cornered the market on uncoolness.

Consider fund-raisers. Democratic fund-raisers in Washington often take place in nightclubs filled with black people or Jewish comedians. People eat cool ethnic foods such as pastrami sandwiches or Thai chicken wraps. Sometimes a movie star shows up to talk about AIDS, battered women or Tibet.

Going to Republican events is like watching infomercials on a Saturday night. You suspect there's value in showing up -- money is raised, connections are forged -- but you also know this is the least cool place in the city. Nothing scandalous happens. People speak earnestly about home schooling and privatizing Social Security.

The coolness differential is also evident in the types of scandals that bedevil Republican and Democratic presidents. Richard Nixon got in trouble because he covered up a burglary. That's not cool. Bill Clinton was impeached because he lied about having oral sex in the Oval Office -- the height of radical chic.

This is a problem for Democrats. It's not about semantics; it is about deep-seated chasms separating right and left.

Coolness is the province of elites. These elites, defined less by money or genealogy and more by taste or disposition, live in Democratic strongholds such as Manhattan and Los Angeles. Everywhere between the Hudson and the Hollywood sign is uncool.

Republicans revel in their uncoolness. They intuit that most Americans have a love-hate relationship with hipsters. Sure, they say, most people want to dress like you, look like you and sleep with the people you sleep with, but they can smell your disdain for all things bourgeois: SUVs, white picket fences, flags, monogamy, organized religion.

Democrats dismiss suggestions that they look down on ordinary folks. It's the party of FDR and LBJ, they say, that fought for the working man. Here they're right. The New Deal, the Fair Deal, the Great Society -- these programs were meant to help middle America. All were noble, none was cool.

The Democrats' problem is the New Left. If the Old Left is the party of New York intellectual Daniel Bell -- an economic liberal, political moderate and social conservative -- the New Left is the party of neo-Marxists, whose identity was shaped in the 1950s and 1960s by radical Others: abstract expressionists, jazz musicians, Sartre, Marcuse, anti-war activists. These define our idea of cool.

This struggle within the Democratic Party is reflected in its leadership. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi is fairly cool (although she's no neo-Marxist). Not only is Ms. Pelosi a woman and attractive, she also comes from San Francisco, which is too serious to be maximally cool but is much cooler than, say, Southern Maryland.

That's where Steny H. Hoyer, the No. 2 Democrat in the House, comes from. Mr. Hoyer, who challenged Ms. Pelosi for the leadership post, is like most House members: too complicated to be compartmentalized. He has the look and feel of an old-time Democrat. But he's also supported abortion rights and free trade.

Still, Mr. Hoyer will never be as cool as Ms. Pelosi: He's a man, he's white and he has a moderate voting record. Coolness is never moderate. Coolness always denotes something radical.

Most voters aren't radical. What they know, or feel, is their lives are not hipster lives. They may suffer from the same angst or ennui that fuels the rebellion against the staid -- the genesis of coolness -- but their suffering is contained. They don't write novels about their battle with heroin or make documentaries about gun control.

Who can say if Republicans consciously portray themselves as uncool? What seems incontrovertible is the Cool Elect are unhelpful guideposts for winning elections. Their politics may focus group well in times of peace and prosperity; in an era of insecurity, voters could care less about the cognoscenti. Democrats ought to consider this in 2004.

Peter Savodnik covers congressional campaigns for The Hill newspaper in Washington.

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