Killing the GOP Brand
'Shake it off.' That old coach's nugget seems to be most Republicans' response to the recent devastating election results. The message of many is that it was a unique situation, a massive one—time blow that has left the party with a mild concussion, but from which we can recover quickly.
We'll have to endure two years of sectarian violence in Congress, will likely lose out on a conservative Supreme Court nominee or two, and will be up to our elbows in investigations and made—to—veto stunt legislation, but by 2008 the special circumstances that killed us in 2006 will be changed — and life can return to normal, with the GOP winning elections nearly by default. So goes the hopeful chant.
However, that is just wrong. The shock the GOP felt was not a lucky blow by Democrats, or a stumble caused by chance. It was the door hitting us on the way out of many voters' trust. Before the election was even over and the votes fully counted, lots of experts offered opinions and theories on why the GOP lost so badly, but not a single one of them holds up.
It was fatigue from the Iraq war, was the favorite theory. But tell that to Ned Lamont. The poster boy for the anti—war left, Lamont was trounced in his Senate battle by Joe Lieberman, the single most pro—war Democrat known. Even having to run as an independent in a three—way race with a pro—war Republican draining votes from his right flank, and with all his 'friends' in the Democratic party campaigning against him, Lieberman won in anti—war Connecticut.
That Iraq war fatigue theory doesn't explain Lincoln Chafee's glorious defeat either. More anti—war than most Democrats, and about as loyal to President Bush as Cindy Sheehan, Chafee was every liberal's favorite Republican. But he lost just like so many pro—war, pro—Bush Republicans. Clearly the war played a powerful role in the election, but it was not a simple litmus test for voters.
Likewise, corruption was offered as an explanation. This theory also has truth in it. But neither Senator Harry Reid's pocket—padding land deals, nor Representative William Jefferson's freezer full of inexplicable cash overly tarnished Democrats' prospects. Similarly, the personal corruption of former Rep. Mark Foley was cited as a factor. Yet voters in Rhode Island were happy to return admitted drug addict and drunk driver Patrick Kennedy to Congress. (Perhaps people just expect more from Republicans.)
Immigration issues were cited as a factor. But how does one explain Arizona voters overwhelmingly passing four very tough anti—illegal alien ballot measures on one side of the ballot, and simultaneously rejecting tough—on—border—security Republicans like J.D. Hayworth and Randy Graf on the other? The defeated consist of both amnesty proponents and opponents. Voters angry at pro—amnesty Republicans sometimes replaced them with even more pro—amnesty Democrats.
The economy is strong by nearly every measure, but was viewed as heading in the wrong direction.
For every issue, glaring contradictions can be found. The only workable explanation is that voters were voting against Republicans precisely because they were Republicans.
This theory also explains how some Democrats, virtually unknown even in the districts in which they were running, won a majority of votes (Carol Shea—Porter of New Hampshire comes to mind). These candidates were the human equivalent of the pollsters' 'generic ballot' — and they won. It's striking also that the defeats for the GOP went well down the ballot. How does anyone expect to affect the war in Iraq or illegal immigration or even corruption in Washington by electing a new county representative to the state legislature or a new councilor to the town board?
The GOP, it appears, has spoiled its reputation, or as it's known in business, their 'franchise' or 'brand.' The little 'R' after candidates' names is today seen as a net negative by many voters who just two years ago saw it as a mild indicator of quality. This is the worst possible turn of events a party can face — and one that could do damage for years to come.
Although elections are often portrayed as contests of ideas, or battles between individual candidates, these simplifications are only partially true. There are a lot of candidates, and a lot of claims, and too many offices and issues for most people to follow closely. So many voters do what consumers everywhere do: when in doubt, they go with the brand they trust most. Features and price (or ideas and candidates) have to compete against that prejudice.
I could buy a Dodge or a Toyota. The Dodge is cheaper, and it looks better. But I'll probably buy the Toyota, because (having owned both) I don't trust Dodge. It would take a helluva Dodge salesman or a huge price difference to overcome that lack of trust. That's the power of a brand of good reputation — it removes lots of doubt at decision time.Ten dollar bargain bin sneakers are a suspect purchase. Ten dollar name brand sneakers are viewed as a no brainer, as long as they aren't counterfeit.
It appears that 'Republican' has now become a suspect brand, just as Dodge or Ford or GM are to many car buyers. Republicans cannot, therefore, expect things to simply revert to being in their favor in the next election cycle, any more than Dodge can hope to have Toyota owners suddenly stop buying Toyotas and switch to Dodge without some powerful new evidence.
Either the Democrats will have to re—tarnish their newly forgiven brand massively in the next two years, or the GOP will need to take extraordinary steps to overcome the philosophical inertia that burdens their brand in many voters' minds. It will not be enough for the GOP to merely go and sin no more. Changing a reputation (for the worse or better) requires one to make a huge swing outside expectations for a sustained period. Stereotypes are stubborn things.
So what harmed the GOP brand? A deadly cocktail of stupid, atypical decisions. It was everything that the GOP did that surprised voters negatively — and sustained that ill surprise long enough to overcome the inertia of the old (good) brand reputation.
And it must be noted that you can only ruin a brand's reputation with those who believe in it to some degree. Those who already hate your brand are not going to punish you for changing. So the GOP's woes can be traced entirely to how the image of the brand has been changed for those who were previously somewhat loyal to the brand (independents and moderates) or very loyal to the brand (conservatives).
The brand—killing actions include violating the expectations of:
1) Fiscal conservatism. The GOP is expected to be the party of fiscal discipline. Under Bush and the current congressional leadership, the GOP has outspent anything the Democrats have attempted since LBJ. One of the core tenets of the conservative movement is that more government equals less freedom. For six years, Bush and the leadership of the GOP have been trying to sell less freedom to a core constituency that admires Reagan and Goldwater. Many budgetary poison pills were swallowed by the base, year after year, in the belief that austerity was just around the corner. Last week the base choked on these bitter pills — and threw up Congress.
2) Security competence. One of the most amazing polls from the wake of the election showed that 78% of voters were somewhat or very concerned that the Democrats that many of the poll respondents had just voted for would trigger a larger crisis by withdrawing from Iraq too quickly. This shows that the Democrats have done nothing to overcome their reputation as untrustworthy with national security. Instead, the GOP has managed to join them in that reputation, by bungling Iraq and by Bush fighting to leave the border wide open in his quixotic quest to get Sancho Panza's vote.
3) Law and order, including immigration law, and border order. Illegal immigration is corruption. Our government officials have decided to not enforce an entire category of laws and, indeed, to facilitate their violation by millions in order to enrich donors and entrench themselves in power behind a barricade of illegitimate new voters. Given that 'law and order' has long been one of the perceived strengths of the Republican Party, the GOP's participation in this corruption of justice is a brand—killing disaster. People expect such lunacy from the party of pander. The GOP is expected to pander less.
4) Honesty. People really do expect more of Republicans on this issue — or at least they did. Democrats' long association with big city political machines, unions, and the surname 'Kennedy' has left them with a reputation as the sort of folks that see government as a one big 'gray area' for personal deal making. Republicans, by contrast, were seen as wonderfully humorless grumpy old stiffs who could be counted on to answer unethical offers with an indignant quote from Teddy Roosevelt or Thomas Jefferson. Thanks to Jack Abramoff and company, they are now just seen as humorless grumpy old hypocrites.
5) The common touch and an ability to connect. The ability to connect with the middle and working classes and to take conservative principles to the people was the greatest gift Ronald Reagan left the GOP. He did not talk down to the people. He did not ignore the people. And he was not perplexed by the belief's of the people.
Bush is aloof, isolated, politically incestuous in his appointments of the family—initiated, and incapable of frank eloquence. Increasingly, he has the unique ability to combine the elitist manner of his father with the grammar of his gardener.
Congress seems a separate country some times. Its members fly back to gerrymandered districts every two years to harvest votes and cash checks, and then return to the imperial city to which they have become assimilated. Many Republicans in Congress seem to be thinking about what to say rather than saying what they think. Few are salesmen or spokesmen for ideas any more. Denny Hastert seemed to have a phobia of microphones and cameras — while Speaker of the House. Boehner and Blunt seem content in being the men behind the curtain — pay no attention to them.
These weighty violations of established expectations have sunk the brand. To restore it large, oversized and well—publicized course corrections must be begun and stuck to with great discipline and earnestness. The five failings must be addressed by
1) a return to fighting baseless government spending;
2) an improvement in Iraq within the year— by any means required;
3) initiating prosecution of the corrupt businesses that hire illegal labor (just as all other manner of corrupt businesses are prosecuted) and categorically rejecting amnesty for immigration criminals;
4) Rooting out any remaining corruption in the party and expelling it. The GOP should hold its members to a higher standard than the law or than do Democrats;
5) Choosing leaders that can act as ideological salesman to the public (not backroom deal makers), and emphasizing to members that each must listen, respond, sell and preach ideas in their districts. The movement isn't going to sell itself.
The voters who abandoned the GOP have not abandoned their beliefs, and could quickly be won back from their uncomfortable trial separation from the party — if given reasons to return. Failure to address vigorously the five basic betrayals that drove them away, however, will allow the current poisoned brand reputation to set permanently. The result will be an end of GOP ascendancy for a decade or more.
Mac Johnson writes a column for Human Events. His personal webpage is here.