As long as there have been political campaigns, there have been campaign theme songs. Think William Henry Harrison’s Tippecanoe and Tyler Too; FDR’s Happy Days Are Here Again; Bill Clinton’s Don’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow.
This year, Barack Obama has chosen Bruce Springsteen’s We Take Care of Our Own as his signature song; Mitt Romney has selected Born Free by Kid Rock.
These songs tell us much about the candidates – not, mind you, about their musical tastes (as I doubt Mitt Romney can name a single other song by Kid Rock), but about their competing visions for America.
President Obama is deeply committed to an entitlement society. In his heart of hearts, Obama believes that government should take care of all citizens (even non-citizens?) from cradle to grave. He believes the role of government is to reduce life’s risks — even if that means reducing opportunity.
To Obama, We Take Care of Our Own speaks not to the obligation of families, churches, and charities to help those in need, but to the obligation of government to do so. It is a call for hard-working Americans to accept responsibility for funding an ever-expanding welfare state.
By contrast, Romney promotes an opportunity society where anyone who works hard, makes good choices, and plays by the rules can succeed. Romney knows there is no opportunity without risk. He believes that a social safety net is important, but not at the expense of social mobility.
To Romney, Born Free suggests that, in America, we are free to become anything we choose. When we allow people to reap the rewards — and face the consequences — of their choices with as little government interference as possible, we increase opportunity for all. Government can provide temporary assistance for those who fail. But government should not create or encourage long-term dependency.
The 2012 campaign songs reflect these deep philosophic differences. They are a departure from the self-referential music choices of 2008, when Romney used Boston classics “Dirty Water” and “Sweet Caroline”; Obama used Motown and Latin music to emphasize diversity; and John McCain used “Johnny Be Good.”).
This year’s theme songs harken back to Ronald Reagan’s use of another Springsteen classic, Born in the USA, to draw an ideological contrast between the patriotism of his administration and the blame-America-first instincts of his opponent. Not surprisingly, the liberal Springsteen protested Reagan’s use of his song – which was intended not as a nationalistic anthem, but as a critique of America’s treatment of Vietnam Vets.
Springsteen is not the only artist to object to the use of his music by Republicans. In 2000, Tom Petty sent a cease-and-desist letter to George W. Bush, who had been playing Petty’s song Won’t Back Down to highlight his Texas toughness. Ironically, to avoid controversy and eliminate distraction, Bush did. Back down, that is.
In his 2004 re-election campaign, Bush used Still the One by Orleans. Orleans too protested Bush’s use of their music. This time Bush stood his ground.
There is no question that Springsteen – a long time financial backer of Obama – endorses the president’s use of We Take Care of Our Own.
Indeed, he practically wrote it for him.
As songs go, I personally prefer We Take Care of Our Own to Born Free. (Not going to lie, I enjoyed singing along with the crowd at Fenway last week as much as anyone.)
But, philosophically, Born Free and Mitt Romney have my vote.