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The Cultural Politics of the Obama-Romney Ad Volley

The intended message of the most recent campaign dustup, with an Obama ad showing Romney singing “America the Beautiful,” and a Romney ad that shows Obama doing Al Green, couldn’t have been clearer: Team Obama believes Romney’s big vulnerability is the way he's amassed and tended to his wealth (Romney’s vocals were the backdrop to a parade of headlines about outsourcing and offshore tax-shelters); Team Romney believes the president’s biggest vulnerability is his economic mismanagement (the Romney ad is about rewarding donors with alleged boondoggles like Solyndra while the middle-class takes on water). 

Still, what immediately strikes you about the Obama attack ad is how painfully off-key Romney’s crooning is: 

And what immediately strikes you about the Romney response featuring Obama is that the president has a pretty good voice. (The ad was pulled from YouTube for alleged copyright transgressions so I’m embedding the original footage of the president singing):

Now, on one level, that’s neither here nor there. It’s the fact of the songs, not the quality of the renditions, that do the heavy lifting. It’s the contrast between Romney’s patriotic ditty and his ostensibly unpatriotic financial maneuvering that makes the Obama ad work. Likewise, it’s the contrast between Obama serenading his donors while the economy stalls out that makes the Romney ad work. 

But if you read between the lines a bit, you come away with a rather telling insight into the primal sensibilities of the two major parties: Democrats, you learn, think there’s something disqualifying about a hokey-looking square guy who can’t carry a tune—like your hopelessly out of touch grandfather. For Republicans, meanwhile, there’s something reflexively disqualifying about a cool-sounding guy who can carry a tune—as though he’s for the hipsters on the coasts, not the commoners in fly-over country. 

I have no doubt the election will revolve around some pretty meaty issues—like economic fairness on the one hand, and economic performance on the other. But if you thought that largely removed the Kulturkampf element—well, that was probably a touch optimistic. It turns out it’s so embedded in our politics as to render it pretty much inescapable. I predict substantially more as time goes by. 

P.S. Normally, I’d expect much more of this stuff from the Republican nominee, since the GOP excels at it, and since the cultural politics typically work to their advantage. But the Obama high-command has made it clear they regard Romney as a painfully awkward goofball in addition to regarding him as a rapacious capitalist, so it could be closer than you'd expect.

P.P.S. Ah, no sooner did I write this than did I see this. Maybe not so close after all. Sununu's unhinged and barely coherent rant against Obama make you wonder if the Romney ad was the unofficial kickoff to a new cultural politics phase of the campaign.

Follow me on twitter: @noamscheiber