Monday, May 19, 2008

Republican Brand X

If you wanted a snapshot of just how bad, how total the disarray within the Republican Party really is, you only had to look at last week’s wild exchange between Chris Matthews, the hyperactive, witheringly intelligent, take-no-prisoners host of MSNBC’s “Hardball,” and Kevin James, the host of a rightwing talk radio program in Los Angeles.

James, the day's appointed special pleader for the GOP assertion that Barack Obama’s preference for a more conciliatory foreign policy toward such potential belligerents as Iran amounted to surrender, was brought up short on his attempt to link Obama with British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, whose claim of “peace in our time” after a trip to Munich in 1938 mischaracterized the intent of the gathering Nazi machine and led to Chamberlain defending himself against charges of “appeasement."

In his search for the answer to one question — “What did Neville Chamberlain do?” — Matthews conducted a grilling of James that was priceless. It was just … well, see for yourself:

James came to a gunfight with Chris Matthews armed only with a talking point: the continued near-hysterical repetition of the word “appeasement.” Matthews wasn’t having it. The on-air blow-by-blow that followed distills the GOP’s current troubles in a nutshell: relentless vocal bluster; the reflexive clutch of patriotism and the flag; and arguments based more on emotionalism and hubris than on substance and fact.

Unfortunately for the Republican party, it’s apparently contagious.

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Virginia Republican Rep. Tom Davis wrote a memo last week:

“The political atmosphere facing House Republicans this November is the worst since Watergate and is far more toxic than the fall of 2006 when we lost twenty seats,” Davis wrote. “The Republican brand is in the trash can … if we were a dog food, they’d take us off the shelf.”

The Republican identity (what’s come to be known in the AdvertisingWorld we live in today as its “brand”) is under fire, for a variety of reasons. An extreme makeover’s needed, and not just in the House of Repersentatives. But its deeper challenges stem from something more central. It’s not the brand, per se. If the GOP renamed itself the Red Crustacean Party, it wouldn’t change a thing. The problem’s not the brand. It’s the product behind the brand.

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In the era roughly spanning the forty years from the Nixon presidency to the Reagan years to the present day, the Republican Party has by coincidence or design configured its identity around a stark, angrily polar, relentlessly enforced distinction between a cherished, unyielding conservatism and the liberal hordes that would defile and destroy it.

The GOP has advanced a conservative identity that marks the party as a bully pulpit from which those outside the faith are rhetorically carpet-bombed and character-assassinated, and dissident moderates from within are converted or marginalized. With the GOP, you are for or you are against. Period.

This siege mentality has persisted, to one degree or another, for two generations. And it’s gotten progressively worse: from the debacle of Watergate to the embarrassment of Iran-Contra, from the hijacked 2000 presidential election to our current featured attraction: a ruinous elective war that has badly damaged American credibility around the world.

Few things have done as much to tarnish the Republican brand as the excesses committed in its name.

Thanks to the current administration alone, the Republican party identity will be forever linked to the dilution of habeus corpus; the reckless proliferation of wiretaps; the pursuit of extralegal means of sequestering the nation's enemies, real and perceived; the enrichment of oil companies, contractors and profiteers; and prosecution of a war that has looted the national treasury, exhausted the national patience and cost the country more than four thousand young, promising American lives.

Thanks to the Bush administration, the Republican brand will be forever connected to a vice president who, when advised in March of national opinion polls that indicated about 65 percent of the American people opposed the war in Iraq, said, unbelievably, “So?”

Thanks to Bush himself, the Republican brand will be forever wedded to this president, the American leader who on a day last week went hat in hand to the King of Saudi Arabia to ask for more oil, and was rejected for the second time this year.

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In the wake of its current troubles, the Republicans announced last week that efforts were underway to change the party’s image and its message to American voters.

As reported by The New York Times, House Republicans met Wednesday at a private meeting to plot a course of action.

Representative Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee, said, “We need to, No. 1, prove that we are listening to the American people, and, No. 2, show that we have a plan of action to respond to what they are telling us.”

The challenge is an obvious one: Change the message. But when so much of the party identity has been tied to a faltering economy, and when so much of McCain’s foreign policy initiatives are little more than tweaks of Bush’s global cowboy swagger, there’s a need for a real reordering of the party’s priorities.

And the clock is ticking. The idea that now, less than six months from a momentous election, the Republican party plans to get serious about redefining itself for the American people is a lot like trying to contain a fire after the house has all but burned to the ground.

Marketing experts say rebranding a company takes time; that it should be a strategic, long-term effort; that success depends on changing popular expectations. But despite a variety of suggestions, there’s a consensus opinion: the process begins with understanding the consumer.

Or, in this case, the voter. Let the new GOP mission statements begin.
Image credits: Dog food: Quadell, republished under GNU Free Documentation License. Bush: Public domain.

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