The role of cool in politics

21:40, May 10 2012

I've been thinking a lot over the past weeks about the contrasting roles of charisma in New Zealand and American politics. Because really, New Zealand's political leaders have never been cool.

In his attempts to be relatable, John Key has confessed to both an awkward attraction to Elizabeth Hurley and a love of Rowan Atkinson's disastrous Bond-spoof Johnny English. (Two things that I insist on always holding against him.)

I don't think Helen Clark thought twice about trying to be cool. Jenny Shipley was too matronly to ever be cool. Jim Bolger seemed as though he would have been offended to be referred to as cool. David Lange had a sharp tongue, but was a little sloppy in appearance. Robert Muldoon was drunk when he called a snap election in 1984 - which is amusing three decades on, but would not have been so cool at the time.

I can't think of one New Zealand politician who skated by on charm alone. We have no one that you want to vote for because you just want to.

This is a good thing.

Coverage of the American election - which, contrary to the occasional Ron Paul supporter who comments here, will be contested pending apocalypse between Mitt Romney and Barack Obama - has become mired in small details. We have six months to go, and every time I read the news I feel as if I'm drowning in polls data.

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But the more minute the analysis becomes, the more I've come to realise that American elections come down to two broad rules:

i) The smooth candidate beats the grumpy guy.

ii) In the absence of a smooth candidate, the tough guy trounces the pushover. 

Both of these rules are entirely matters of perception, not policy.

Image defines American elections. It has since the dawn of TV.

There's a classic anecdote from the 1960 US presidential election. John F. Kennedy met Richard Nixon in the first ever televised debate. Afterward, when surveyed, a TV audience reported to have witnessed a smooth, dapper JFK calmly and coolly dispatching a sweaty, flustered Nixon. Radio audiences heard the opposite. To them the rhetorically assured Nixon was the winner. The debate changed both the course of the election, and American politics forever more.

Now, fast-forward 52 years. At the end of April, Obama went on the Jimmy Fallon show to answer a few puffball questions and advocate against increases in student loan interest. He took part in a section called "Slow Jam the News", wherein Fallon and his backing band the Roots turn a major news story into a sexy, Barry White-esque slow-jam. It's a simple, but great gag; Fallon's searing whiteness contrasts with his playful soul-baritone, and the Roots back it up with a skilled deadpan musical performance. And say what you will about Obama, but he has the performance chops to pull this kind of thing off that most candidates would kill for.

While watching this, three things happened.

i) I laughed, because it is funny.

ii) The playfulness of the president to submit to this, and make it work, made him immediately endearing.

iii) I then recoiled as I realised how easily I had been won over.

There's nothing clever about it, there's no practical aspect in it. It is just Obama talking about a well-established policy point over a musical beat, to an audience of extremely sympathetic people.

The clip went viral the next day: five million people have watched it on YouTube, and it was spotlighted and debated endlessly on most media platforms and news shows.

I would guess a large proportion of the people who ended up seeing it were not the sorts of people who are following the daily minutiae of a campaign. They're not monitoring Romney's uptick in the last week across swing states, or the linguistic nuances of Obama's stump speech.

They just see the president pulling off being cool and funny alongside a celebrity and feel favourably toward him.

The next day, when Republicans en masse decried Obama's Fallon excursion and said that it wasn't funny, they had lost before they'd even opened their mouths. They couldn't seem to be anything but cranky and mean-spirited to the wider American audience.

Because the cool guy always wins.

When there's more than 100 million people voting, it can't ever be about policy. It's about gut instinct.

Back in 2000, George W Bush was the cool guy, the cowboy you'd like to have a beer with. Bill Clinton stole the national spotlight as a presidential candidate by playing the saxophone on the Arsenio Hall Show, and leaned on his easy Southern charm to get through two elections and stay popular through many public outings of his extramarital proclivities. Ronald Reagan was a Hollywood actor who used his charm to turn such platitudes as "Morning in America" into cultural tipping points.

Pending the presence of the cool guy, the meaner guy will usually win. Like Bush in 2004, or his father in 1988, or Nixon in general.

So to win this election, Romney needs to knock Obama's composure and get under his skin. He'll only win by making Obama look weak, and himself the tougher guy America needs. He can't out-cool Obama. Every time he tries - like taking 12th-row seats at a recent Boston Celtics playoff game, when everyone knows even Donnie Wahlberg gets into the front row - he falls flat on his face.

These basic emotional connections with Americans are all that count. Which is sad when you think of how many things in America really, really need fixing.

I greatly prefer our own political system.

I think that we should be grateful for proportional representation and a parliamentary system. Because of them, we're not so politically beholden to one person, and our elections are not as driven by cults of personality. There's so much less of a separation in atmosphere between Key and Parliament than there is between Obama and Congress.

There's little sex appeal to New Zealand politics. But don't you think that is a good thing?    

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