US politics: Cool for 'crats

With Barack Obama's star power, Joe Biden's GSOH and Hillary Clinton's love of fun, who'd be a Republican? Tim Walker on America's most happening party
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During a recent appearance on the US chat show Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, the actor Jason Segel revealed he'd received a letter from Hillary Clinton. Segel had expressed an interest in appearing onscreen with the Secretary of State, who responded that she'd be happy to take up his offer in the future. "My only condition," she wrote, using a Woody Allenesque typeface, "is that there be Muppets involved." In the past month, Clinton has also been photographed on the dance floor of a Cartagena, Colombia nightclub, and met the co-creators of the joke Tumblr blog "Texts from Hillary" at the State Department. This sort of behaviour conforms to a historical trend: it may not win them elections, but Democrats are undoubtedly cooler than Republicans.

Exhibit one – the presidential candidates: Mormon 15-time grandfather Mitt Romney, unspeakably wealthy former CEO of Bain Capital; and Barack Obama, who plays basketball and has his own Pinterest page. Soon after the President sang a line of Al Green's "Let's Stay Together" at a fundraising event (cool), Romney performed three verses of "America the Beautiful" on the campaign trail (not cool). At last weekend's White House correspondents' dinner, Obama was in his element – not only cracking jokes, but laughing at the ones cracked at his expense. When Romney tells "jokes", they tend to be reported as "gaffes".

Meanwhile, Vice-President Joe Biden – whose own gaffes somehow inspire more affection than ridicule – is guaranteed to be cooler than whomever Romney picks as his running mate. For the past four years, the VP has been a favourite target for satirical news site The Onion, which portrays him not as a teetotal family man, but as a rogueish playboy who washes his Trans-Am, shirtless, in the White House driveway. Like Clinton, Biden embraced the joke. "I think it's hilarious, the stuff they do on me," he told a Yahoo! interviewer last year. "By the way, I have a Corvette – a '67 Corvette – not a Trans-Am."

Despite the best efforts of Messrs Reagan, Schwarzenegger and Norris, the Democrats remain the party of Hollywood (cool), while the Republicans remain the party of Big Oil, bankers and Walmart (not cool). Clinton, Biden and Obama have all appeared on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. Romney has not. For straightforward political reasons, parties of the left generally appeal more to young people, while parties of the right generally appeal more to older people. Young people are cooler than old people. QED.

Being cool gets you only so far, however. In 2008, John McCain's campaign released an ad describing Obama as "the biggest celebrity in the world", and attacking him for shallowness. It dented the Democrat's poll lead, briefly. When Obama appeared on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon on 24 April, "slow-jamming" the news that he'd asked Congress to stop an increase in the interest rate on student loans, Republicans expressed outrage. The President, said his uncool opponents, had coolly made light of a serious issue. Within days, conservative group American Crossroads produced a new attack ad, called "Cool". "After four years of a celebrity president," it asks, over clips of Obama dancing with Ellen DeGeneres, "is your life any better?" Dude, that is so not cool.