Over the past few decades, Republicans have been many wonderful things — charming, charismatic, inspirational — but, according to a recent RNC report, cool is not one of them. In fact, Republican politics haven’t been cool since the swashbuckling days of Theodore Roosevelt, who could probably get the youth vote on the merits of his whiskers alone, if finishing a speech after getting shot in the chest failed to impress everybody.
Today’s Republicans, on the other hand, are far likelier to talk about their family when trying for sympathy, offering them to the country as proof that at least somebody loves them. During the 2012 election, Romney advisers steered their socially awkward candidate well clear of impromptu interviews and late-night television, fearing any cultural faux pas. Even his running mate, Paul Ryan, jokingly compared his own habit of getting the Led out to Romney’s penchant for elevator music.
Unfortunately for Romney, the 2012 election results proved that being a square is no laughing matter. Although winning individuals over 30 by 1.5 million votes, Romney lost voters under 30 by more than 5 million. In the past, the GOP could afford to cede a small victory in the youth demographic to Democrats. In 2000, voters 18-29 basically broke even, and in 2004 only 56% preferred Kerry. In any case, the demographic represented only 10% of the vote.
In 2012, that figure doubled to 20% of the vote, and the Democratic lead in it expanded to 60%. The youth vote has exploded in the past two elections, and, with no signs of abating, the GOP is finally beginning to worry about its curious lack of mojo.
Cool, like many things, was largely invented in the 1960s. Although Republicans often picture themselves as grand reformers, their fervor can’t hold a candle to the revolutionary impulse behind progressive politics since 1960. In the end, cool, in the words of Kennedy press secretary and Hollywood royalty Frank Mankiewicz, was about “drama.” Democratic super-celebrities, like JFK and Bill Clinton, “were both dynamic and exciting, something that has always had appeal in Hollywood. They had drama.” Since the 1960s, Democrats have owned the idealism and beauty JFK gave them, while Republicans have responded with the pragmatic realism of Bob Dole.
Although few would call him pretty, the recent actions of Kentucky Senator Rand Paul may show his party a way out of this cave. Comparably young, idealistic, and with a sense for theatrics, Senator Paul might be the last chance conservative ideas have for appealing to millennials. His antics on the Senate floor, filibustering until the Obama administration clarified its domestic drone policy, put Democratic strategists in the same position Republicans have been in for decades — telling young voters that, though he may sound cool, his policies are way out of whack.
The RNC now has plans to set up a “Celebrity Task Force” and to pursue the youth vote in the pages of Us Weekly, as if the Democrats did not already enjoy a lead in the demographic before George Clooney. Republicans need more than Clint Eastwood and a Twitter account if they are going to win the youth vote. They need to turn away from the angry and pessimistic tone of Sean Hannity and the Drudge Report and present the country with an idealism that is about something larger than a pocketbook — and it won’t hurt if they do it with a young voice in a well-tailored suit.