Rove Goes Mean Girls on Obama

Barack Obama is too cool to be President: It’s the implicit argument of the new ad from Karl Rove’s mega PAC American Crossroads, which shows President in a series of his cooler moments, and tries to argue that such coolness undermines his ability to do his job. The ad makes no logical sense, of course. There’s no reason to think that a quick wit or good taste in music somehow prevents someone from understanding how to run a country. But then again, this is Karl Rove we’re talking about, a man who built his career tapping the animal instincts of the electorate, hoping to activate the knee-jerk reactionary inside all of us just long enough to win at the polls. The only question is, why does he think this particular appeal will work?

Rove does have a fine-tuned ear for every grievance uttered by the privileged but petty, so it’s no surprise that he’d try to find a political angle to the sport of hipster-bashing. As I’ve detailed before, hipster-bashing used to be the province of actual hipsters seeking to demonstrate a whiff of humble authenticity, but now it’s mostly another way for right wingers to grouse about the “liberal elite” that oppresses them with organic food and trendy haircuts. With conservatives dropping the word “hipster” in the same poisoned tones they used in the past for long-haired hippies and race mixers, this ad had a certain inevitability to it. Indeed, this ad is accompanied by a heavy-duty push of the “President thinks he’s sooooo cool” narrative on Fox News.

What makes the strategy confusing is that while burning resentment against the cool kids may motivate the conservative base, there’s no reason to think potential swing voters take issue with Obama rocking the Rat Pack vibe in a suit. Rove and company need to build a narrative, and if this American Crossroads ad is any indication, the hope is to tap into a pre-existing narrative shared by all Americans, not just those on the right: the revenge of the misfits. It’s a narrative best exemplified by the movie Animal House, where the worthy if slightly nutty group of loveable miscreants overthrows the aristocrats of popularity in a bout of joyful mayhem.

Rove clearly hopes the conservative base will pick up the mantle of Delta Tau Chi, wrecking the Obama parade and wiping the smug smiles off Omega Theta Pi. After all, you have Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann playing the Bluto role, spouting off startlingly ill-informed takes on American history to rally the troops. It probably sounds great on paper, but if Rove thinks it’s going to be a good electoral narrative, he needs to rewatch the movie because there’s a glaring flaw in his interpretation. Yes, there are analogues to Obama and Romney in the story he’s tapping, but they play the opposite roles of the ones he needs them to play.

For those who don’t remember, the leader of the misfit crew was Otter, played by Tim Matheson, a smooth ladies man with a swift tongue who used his immense charisma to keep some semblance of control over his merry band of party animals. The evil fraternity, however, was composed completely of uptight preps with a penchant for women with blonde hair helmets. Trying to paint the guys dancing in togas to 60s R&B as the evil oppressors just won’t work on anyone who isn’t already a member of Omega Theta Pi.

Outside of conservative circles, it’s hard to drum up resentment for the cultural capital of cool. Unlike the tropes of the mean girl and the evil prep, the whole point of the cool guy is that he manages to be popular while being a friend to and often champion of the misfits. When Obama sings Al Green or jokes around with Jimmy Kimmel, most Americans don’t feel like he’s looking down on them. On the contrary, they feel that he’s throwing a party and everyone is invited.  When the uptight Republicans decked in flags on Fox News rail against him, they end up invoking the impotent preps of Animal House, shaking their fists in fury as that scuzzy house of impudent upstarts right down the street.

No doubt hating the cool kids will help motivate the conservative base. Conservatives have been angry about cool since at least the 60s, and probably forever. Rove just hopes he can use that resentment to invert the narrative, to turn the snooty preps into the courageous rebels and the oversexed hipsters into an elite to overturn. The only problem is that cultural narratives don’t get reversed that easily in the public imagination. In fact, by reminding the public that Obama is cool, Rove and company are probably just reminding everyone why they fell so hard for Obama in the first place, and why they might want to keep him as their leader.

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