Branding 'Retro Romney'

Now that Mitt Romney’s nomination as the Republican presidential candidate seems almost inevitable, the Obama campaign is in a hurry to define him to the public before the public defines him for itself.

When Obama’s chief campaign strategist David Axelrod jokingly suggested that Romney has trouble distinguishing TV make-believe from reality by quipping that Romney “must watch Mad Men and think it’s the evening news,” this statement of Axelrod’s was no breezy ad lib. It emerged as part of a concerted effort by the Obama campaign to paint Romney as a hopelessly out-of-touch and out-of-date cultural dinosaur who wants to turn back the clock on the last half-century.

American voter, meet Retro Romney.

President Obama has gotten into the act, too, by mocking his opponent. Obama performed this service (traditionally relegated to a vice president or other surrogates) when he made fun of Romney’s use of the supposedly outdated word “marvelous”– although Obama was probably hoping that we wouldn’t notice he’s said it himself three times so far during his presidency. The Retro Romney theme was also interjected into an Obama fundraising message that stated that Romney has “a social agenda from the 1950s.”

Nearly unnoticed amidst the furor over Hilary Rosen’s dissing Ann Romney for having “never worked a day in her life” was the fact that Rosen ended that same controversial interview with a salvo at Mitt himself that took up the Retro Romney refrain and linked it to policy again: “He seems so old-fashioned when it comes to women…because he doesn’t really see us as equal.” No evidence for this charge was presented, because there is none; in fact, Romney included women at the highest levels of his administration when he was governor of Massachusetts. But that didn’t stop Rosen from staying on message with her associative innuendos aimed at the primary target, which was Mitt rather than Ann.

It’s clear that this is all part of a carefully coordinated attempt to drum up the fear that, because Romney’s looks and manner give off a Fifties vibe, he is a throwback who secretly dreams of marching us all back to the bad old days of mid-twentieth century sexism and racism and every other nasty “ism” that ever was. Who knows where the man might stop? If given the chance, no doubt he’d try to revive little white gloves and the panty girdle.

In line with that word “secretly,” a secrecy meme has also been recently unveiled, introduced in relation to Romney’s delay in releasing his 2011 tax returns. Axelrod was at it again with the television comparisons when he said, “Harkening back to my youth … there was a show called, ‘I’ve Got A Secret.’ Increasingly, I think that would be the appropriate title for the Romney campaign.”

Put together “I’ve Got a Secret” and Mad Men and what have you got? Why, Don Draper again, the Mad Men character whose smooth and ultra-controlled exterior is a false screen that hides his real identity, and of whom another Mad Men character says, “Who knows anything about that guy? No one’s ever lifted that rock.”

The idea that Romney would identify with or be sympathetic to the hard-drinking, philandering characters from Mad Men ought to be ludicrous to anyone who’s ever watched the show and who knows much of anything about Romney — whose private life is exemplary and who doesn’t even drink coffee, for goodness’ sake. But that’s irrelevant to the Obama campaign’s aim, which is to focus on Romney’s undeniable well-groomed and sleek good looks (and vague superficial physical resemblance to protagonist Don Draper), and thereby tie Romney to unsavory figures and policies from a bygone era. Their goal is to brand him as a hopelessly out-of-date character who couldn’t possibly understand American life in 2012 and is stuck in a time warp of the mind as well as a stylistic one.

Note that word “branding.” It is highly appropriate, and not only because the setting of the show Mad Men is an advertising agency. Got an opponent who’s almost impossibly telegenic, along with his entire family, and seems competent in a Father Knows Best way? Just rebrand him as negative, and hope that voters will buy what you’re selling instead.

But pushing the Mad Men/Romney comparison and the image of the out-of-date Retro Romney might not be such a winner for the Obama campaign after all. The show is tremendously popular and has given a great many people a wistful desire to go back — if only for a moment — to a time when men were men and women were women and we all got to smoke cigarettes inside buildings and wear those great (albeit restrictive) fashions.

And it’s not just among the boomer generation that Mad Men mania has taken hold. Perhaps most surprisingly, many young people have become fans, experiencing a love-hate relationship with its characters and a fascination for what must seem to them to be an exotic and drastically different time. Apparently it’s not necessary to have lived though an era — or to admire it — to feel some sort of nostalgia for it. If pushed, this Romney=Don Draper meme might even end up having the paradoxical and unintended effect of making the quintessentially “square” (to use a Fifties term) Mitt Romney seem kind of cool.

But the approach could backfire in deeper ways, too. Obama’s attempt to link Romney to the negatives of the Mad Men years runs the risk not only of upping Romney’s coolness quotient, but of having people connect him with the era’s positive aspects instead: stability, prosperity, optimism. These are qualities that have been sorely lacking in the years since the recession began, except for a brief surge of optimism at the very beginning of Obama’s presidency. Who wouldn’t be happy to elect someone who might help to restore some of these things? Nostalgia isn’t just for hairdos and fashion.

None other than Don Draper knew that, too. In one of the most well-known episodes of Mad Men Draper pitches an ad campaign for the Kodak Carousel and talks about nostalgia, which is the driving force of the invention. “It takes us to a place where we ache to go again,” Draper muses as he operates the slide projector and shows photos of his own family in happier days to the assembled group of ad men. Obama would do well to respect that ache, rather than risk invoking it.