The entry of Bruce Springsteen and fellow rockers into the political fray this month — all of it shrewdly stage managed — was a reminder that this is becoming a ’60s-style “us-vs.-them” race.

A “compassionate conservative” message will be dusted off at the Republican convention, but the president clearly is gearing up for a war over social issues. Though polls show that 80% of Americans support a renewal of the ban on semiautomatic assault guns and 72% favor stem cell research, the president stands by his obstinate opposition. And the obstinacy heightens further over Iraq — the president makes no mistakes, remember.

Hence, hitting the road for the Vote for Change tour are the likes of John Fogerty and Bright Eyes, the Dave Matthews Band, Pearl Jam, John Mellencamp, Babyface and Death Cab for Cutie. Not since the Nixon campaigns of ’68 and ’72 have the forces of pop culture so massed against a candidate.

The irony is that Nixon was a stalwart liberal on social issues compared to George W. Bush. He was a proponent of gun control, and he fought efforts by social conservatives to impose anti-abortion policies on foreign nations. Even the foreign policies of the Nixon-Kissinger team would be disdained by Bush today — together they built alliances and negotiated with foes rather than declaring preemptive war on them.

Indeed, some historians now suggest that Nixon could have had a successful presidency had he not gone psycho — to be sure, a rather significant drawback. The longer he remained in office, the greater his brooding paranoia over hostile artists, intellectuals and other Brahmins of the media world.

The militancy with which George W. Bush distances himself from any trace of pop culture is certainly reminiscent of the Nixon White House at its darkest. Bush isn’t paranoid about Bruce Springsteen and his ilk; he’s just oblivious that there’s another world out there, just as he was oblivious to Vietnam during his years at Yale.

Nixon and Bush also share another disturbing trait, claiming to be a conservative while showing little patience with the Constitution. Nixon set about to rewrite that document in defending himself against Watergate. And Bush’s propensity for unilateral preemptive strikes seems similarly contemptuous of the Founding Fathers, as does his willingness to tinker with the Constitution over gay marriage.

As more and more rockers and other pop culture figures take to the hustings, the polarizing effect will be dramatic. The Wall Street Journal last week related the success stories of lesser-known rock groups: Major record companies are bidding upward of $500,000 for Anti-Flag, a Pittsburgh punk rock band whose hit song is titled “Their System Doesn’t Work for You.” Warners is about to release “American Idiot,” from multiplatinum Green Day. Sample lyric: “I’m not part of your redneck agenda.” Columbia has signed a group called Kill Radio, whose Web site pictures the president with the caption: “King George: Off With His Head.”

According to the Journal, Tom Sarig, the manager of Against Me, says the kids’ reaction to his group’s political messages is “almost religious.”

All of which vaguely reminds me of Bob Dylan’s immortal ’60s admonition: “You don’t need a weather man to know which way the wind blows.”

Writing in Time magazine, Joe Klein argues that the country is not as divided as it seems and that a vast number of Americans still occupy a magic middle ground. That cheerful view, however, ignores the many factors today that exacerbate the divide. There’s the shrillness of Rush Limbaugh and his imitators, not to mention the noise level generated by Fox News. There’s the pervasive nastiness of congressional leaders. There’s even Michael Moore.

And then, of course, there’s the war. You don’t need to be a weather man to feel that chill wind.

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