Hip To Be Square?

One of the flimsiest of straw men that conservative gabbers seem to be burning down this week is the supposed “liberal” assumption that Mitt Romney can’t win because he’s “square” or “boring” while Barack Obama is “cool” and “interesting.” I guess this is a response to the same-day phenomena of Obama’s interview with Rolling Stone and his appearance on Jimmy Fallon’s show, or perhaps his events at college campuses.

In any event, David Paul Kuhn has a very odd column out that tells us being “square” is not a bar to election as president. He then trots out Richard Nixon ’72, George H.W. Bush ’88, and Ronald Reagan ’80 and ’84 as examples of “square” pols who did well. Fortunately for his argument, he does not seek to make the case that the opponents of these “squares,” George McGovern, Michael Dukakis, Jimmy Carter and Walter Mondale, were perceived as “hip.” Indeed, one does not often ascend to a presidential nomination by being “cool,” and there are plenty of “squares” in the losing column of presidential elections aside from the aforementioned Democrats, most recently Bob Dole, who actually campaigned on representing “a bridge to a time of tranquility, faith and confidence in action.”

Having demolished an argument about Romney that no one has actually made, Kuhn does go on to identify Mitt’s “plutocratic demeanor” as a real problem for him. Like Romney, Richard Nixon was “stiff,” but he was a “working stiff,” says Kuhn in the column’s best line, while Romney does not have the “formative experience” story that allows patricians to build a bond with the less privileged. So the trick for Mitt is simply to exude “competence,” and his square jaw and business background will go a long way to do just that.

Oh well. Far be it from me to compete with Kuhn or anyone else in deep reflections on the psychology of swing voters who are presumed to care nothing about the policies or parties of presidential candidates, and are instead subconsciously looking for a daddy, a drinking buddy (not a good constituency for Romney!), a boss, a field marshal or a moral exemplar.

Contra the planted axiom that “liberals” are mocking Romney as a “square” (which would, of course, be counter-productive since it would help create a bond between the candidate and regular folks that he is struggling to create), the standard raps on Mitt’s personality is that he is deeply weird (you know, weird religion, weird sense of humor, weird attitude towards workers and dogs) and/or is an empty suit whose only real conviction is that he ought to be president of the United States. These are not, actually, “square” attributes, since “squares” are by definition not weird, and usually have all sorts of core convictions that can get in the way of achieving great wealth or high political office.

If Romney’s personality ultimately becomes a factor in this election, it will probably be because his lack of “squareness” interferes with his efforts to inspire confidence that swing voters unhappy with the status quo can afford to take a big chance on elevating him and his party to power. Perhaps it won’t matter at all. But if I were in his camp, I wouldn’t bet the farm on trying to make him look like the salt of the earth.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.