President Obama is the 11th president to seek reelection in the post-World War II era.
His campaign slogan could be, “This one goes to 11.”
For those who remember, that was among the deadpan lines delivered by the fictional lead guitarist Nigel Tufnel (played by Christopher Guest) in the 1984 rock ‘n’ roll satire This is Spinal Tap.
Directed by Rob Reiner, the movie is a mockumentary of the rock documentary. Everything idolized in the rock world is lampooned with precision. But the movie is also a subversive commentary about all things grandiose.
Let’s together enjoy how Spinal Tap informs this year’s battle for the White House.
First, when director Marty DiBergi (played by Reiner) asks Tufnel about his amplifiers, Tufnel explains that other amps can’t get to 11; just 10 is all the way up. Tufnel wants more.
Tufnel: “What we do is, if we need that extra push over the cliff, you know what we do?”
DiBergi: “Put it up to 11.”
Tufnel: “Eleven. Exactly. One louder.”
At which point it dawns on DiBergi that the amps aren’t actually any louder. The volume knob high setting just reads “11.”
DiBergi: “Why don’t you just make 10 louder and make 10 the top number and make that a little louder?”
Tufnel makes the frown of someone irked beyond belief by a dolt’s inability to comprehend his art. A long pause ensues.
Tufnel: “These go to 11.”
OK. It’s not that Obama wants to be the 11th reelected president in the modern era that ties him to Tufnel. It’s his reelection slogan, “Forward.” I’ve talked to several Democrats who wonder if “Forward” is the best that Team Obama can come up with. Some wonder if “Forward” will last the summer.
Forward. Who doesn’t want to go forward? But forward where, in pursuit of what?
Forward toward immigration reform? Obama never even drafted a bill. Forward on gay marriage? Not likely, given the rampant confusion over what Joe Biden said on the issue and what Obama has said he believes. Forward on the Bush tax cuts (all or part)? Hard to know. Forward on Obama’s 2 percent payroll-tax cut?
“Forward” sounds a little bit like an amplifier that goes to 11.
Mitt Romney’s campaign is also reflected in Spinal Tap. When the band, its American tour a string of canceled shows and diminished crowds, arrives at an amusement park to play for an Air Force officers’ dance, Lt. Bob Hookstratten (played by Fred Willard) greets them thusly:
“May I start by saying how thrilled we are to have you here. We are such fans of your music and all of your records. I’m not speaking of yours personally, but the whole genre of the rock and roll.”
Hookstratten spoke for numerous Republican primary voters enthused by the idea of beating Obama but not by Romney specifically. Read the tepid endorsements of Romney from former rivals Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum and you’ll begin to hear Hookstratten in Dolby.
And at the risk of inciting the undying wrath of Ron Paul supporters, there’s something in Spinal Tap for them, too. At one point in a concert, Tufnel introduces a set piece about the Druids with this line: “In ancient times, hundreds of years before the dawn of history, an ancient race of people … the Druids. No one knows who they were or what they were doing.”
This could be said of Paul’s supporters. Now, before my e-mail box explodes, Paul people, hear me out. Tufnel’s line was mocking a rock star’s ignorance. Many in the political community are similarly dim about Paul’s supporters. Paul supporters know who they are and get results—as they did last week by winning a majority of delegates selected at party conventions in Maine and Nevada. Romney’s team would do well to channel this energy. If it doesn’t, he will be looking at a sea of Hookstrattens.
Independent voters also get their due in Spinal Tap. Derek Smalls, the bassist, describes his relationship with the band’s lead singer, David St. Hubbins (the patron saint of quality footwear, in case you were wondering) and Tufnel: “We’re very lucky in that we have two visionaries: David and Nigel. They’re like poets. Like Shelley and Byron. They’re two distinct types of visionaries. It’s like fire and ice, basically. I feel my role in the band is to be somewhere in the middle of that. Kind of like lukewarm water.”
Yes, every nominee believes he is a visionary. Partisans who follow them want to believe it, too. Obama will offer the warmth of identifying with voter fears, concerns, and anxiety. Romney will offer analytical judgment and turnaround savvy to rescue a stalled economy. Fire and ice. Independents will be lukewarm water. Everyone wants to get to 11.
This article appears in the May 9, 2012, edition of National Journal Daily.