The state of the "Republican brand" has become a ubiquitous discussion topic among Washington wonks, journalists, and politicians over the past year. Last May, then-congressman Tom Davis of Virginia sent a memo to his House GOP colleagues arguing that "the Republican brand is in the trash can. . . . If we were dog food, they would take us off the shelf."
That same month, in a Wall Street Journal op-ed, Senator Tom Coburn moaned that Tom DeLay's K Street Project and "compassionate conservatism" had "decimated our brand as the party of reform and limited government." Newt Gingrich chimed in on the website of Human Events, "The Republican brand has been . . . badly damaged." In classic Newt fashion, he listed "Nine Acts of Real Change That Could Restore the GOP Brand."
After November's election debacle, Republican politicians continued to employ this relatively novel wonk-speak. From South Carolina governor Mark Sanford to Mississippi governor and former Republican chairman Haley Barbour, they deplored the failure to uphold the GOP brand.
Lifted from the world of advertising and marketing, "brand" talk isn't limited to political parties: Individual candidates and officeholders can possess their own "personal brand" (a concept popularized by business gurus like Tom Peters). The health of John McCain's maverick "brand," for instance, was much analyzed during last year's campaign. In October, New York magazine's John Heilemann sought to explain "How McCain Lost His Brand: From Maverick to Crank in an Instant." By running negative ads and curtailing McCain's freewheeling bull-sessions with reporters, Heilemann claimed, McCain's handlers had tarnished "the candidate's gold-plated brand."
One might ask why the old-fashioned word "reputation" no longer suffices to describe the esteem in which the public holds a political party or an individual politician. One reason is that "brand," like any jargon word, helps certify its user's membership in a class of people--in this case, people who spend their waking hours thinking and talking and writing about the marketing of politicians.
Then, too, sloppy language usually reveals sloppy thinking, and the eager embrace of "brand" talk among Republican leaders suggests that many of them haven't bothered to confront the true nature of the GOP's predicament.
While a "reputation" can be maintained, improved, or ruined primarily through one's actions, "brand" belongs more to the sphere of aesthetics and surfaces. Some Republicans and conservatives take comfort in the belief that they can stage a comeback using the same old issues and policy ideas, just "rebranded" with a little fresh packaging--whether focus-group-approved phrases or new political figures with their own "gold-plated brands."
This temptation is acute among those still stunned by the spectacle of a once-in-a-generation political talent like Barack Obama managing to put a hip new sheen (for now) on a whole host of once-discredited left-liberal approaches to domestic and foreign policy. You almost can't blame Republicans for thinking they need only "rebrand" themselves, rather than critically reexamine their ideas and policies.
Thus we hear new RNC chairman Michael Steele saying that Republicans "need to uptick our image" by applying the party's principles in, for example, "urban-suburban hip-hop settings." Rush Limbaugh, meanwhile, in his much-discussed speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference, declares that conservatives and Republicans "can take this country back. All we need is to nominate the right candidate. It's no more complicated than that."
Actually, it is more complicated. The challenge facing Republicans and conservatives goes deeper than cosmetics or personalities. It demands that we revisit our core principles and apply them to formulate compelling solutions to a host of challenges to American prosperity and leadership--such as mounting health care costs, middle-class wage stagnation and rising income inequality, the collapse of authority, and the increasing dysfunction of fundamental institutions, ranging from our financial system and the federal government to our public schools. These problems cannot be addressed convincingly by merely dusting off the 1980 GOP platform.
Certainly fresh faces and fresh communications techniques can help, but only as the vehicles for fresh ideas. Successful politics cannot be reduced to mere marketing. (As President Obama is beginning to discover, even a wildly popular "personal brand" doesn't make governing easy.) New conservative statesmen and a newly vibrant Republican party will not emerge if we consider them akin to dog food or soap, whose market share can be increased with clever ads and a snazzy new label.
In a Washington Times op-ed last month, Governor Sanford wrote: "In many ways, a political party is little more than a brand." What a cramped, unlovely view of the role of parties in our democracy.
Political parties are often messy things--but at their best, they draw their strength and their reason for being from the real needs and hopes of millions of citizens. They serve the public by structuring choice: by formulating alternative ways to address public needs and advancing candidates who will carry those solutions forward. Republicans and conservatives can hasten their return to relevance by talking less about their "brand" and working harder to address the needs and aspirations of the people whose votes they seek to win.
Lee Bockhorn is a former speechwriter for President George W. Bush and NEH chairman Bruce Cole.