Rebuilding the Republican Brand

Thursday, January 22, 2009

After losing the Washington state governor’s race four years ago by the closest margin of any gubernatorial contest in U.S. history—133 votes out of 2.8 million cast—Republican Dino Rossi wasn’t taking any chances in last fall’s rematch. He avoided his party’s national convention, so as to better position himself as a nonpartisan; when it came to putting his name on the ballot, Rossi forsook his party’s name altogether. His descriptor: “prefers GOP party” (GOP, of course, being shorthand for Grand Old Party, a phrase that local pollsters found only one in five Washington state voters fully understood).

The maneuver failed: Rossi lost again, this time by nearly 200,000 votes. His tactics show the hardships some Republicans underwent in 2008. If it wasn’t Rossi playing name games in the upper Northwest, it was GOP candidates such as Minnesota Senator Norm Coleman avoiding his party’s nominee—in the same state that was home to the 2008 Republican National Convention. As for that nominee, John McCain’s last campaign appearance with an unpopular George W. Bush occurred in late May, a good five months before America voted.

Republicans at the top of the ticket were missing in action; Republican voters returned the favor. Nationally, in the 2008 election, GOP turnout fell by more than 4 percent while Democratic turnout rose by over 9 percent, according to American University’s Center for the Study of the American Electorate—not enough to change the final outcome, but perhaps the difference in a razor-thin swing state such as Indiana, where McCain fell short by a mere 26,000 votes, or North Carolina, which Barack Obama carried by 100,000 votes, or less than 1 percent.

Throughout the course of the 2008 election, two plotlines defined the Republican cause:

Could McCain survive in a political climate seemingly designed for his demise (a weak economy, coupled with the eight-year itch to install a new party in the White House)?

Were the struggles of this campaign season a precursor to future uncertainty regarding party identity and leadership?

Now that we’ve answered the first question, let’s focus on the second and what lies ahead for the GOP. But first, some historical perspective.

THE QUEST FOR A LOGICAL SUCCESSOR

Four years ago, Republicans were riding high. The Bush re-election was the first since 1936 in which both the incumbent president won and his party gained seats in both houses of Congress. Republicans had also done well in 2002—winning back control of the Senate. It was the first time since 1934 that a president’s party had gained seats in both the Senate and the House midway into the president’s first term.

But the wins were illusory in at least two respects. First, the GOP’s hold on Congress was tenuous at best. Democrats regained control of both the House and the Senate in the 2006 midterm elections—and did so without losing as single seat, a first since 1938.

Meanwhile, as the nation turned its attention to the upcoming presidential election, the GOP, which prides itself as “the party of ideas,” was losing its identity from an ideological standpoint.

Bush had risen to the presidency as a “compassionate conservative.” Think of it as a Republican version of Bill Clinton’s “triangulation,” with Bush offering himself as conservative on taxes and most social issues, less to the right on matters such as the federal role in K–12 education, and not as wild-eyed as the Republican revolutionaries who seized control of Congress in the mid-1990s.

Had that tactical ploy established itself as a governing political philosophy for the eight years of the Bush presidency, it might have been the logical successor to previous incarnations of Republican thought during the past 150 years: the Kansas-Nebraska Act and the party’s antislavery roots of the 1850s; turn-of-the-century antitariff and pro-growth economics; and the triad of lower taxes, anticommunism, and restrained federalism that defined the GOP of the second half of the twentieth century.

The GOP—the entity that prides itself as “the party of ideas”—began losing its identity a few years ago from an ideological standpoint.

But the course on which Bush embarked—the faith-based initiative, No Child Left Behind—effectively ended on September 11, 2001, with the emergence of antiterrorism as a predominant national issue. The first Bush presidency, essentially a “supersized” governor who read to kids in classrooms, gave way to a “wartime” presidency. And although that one issue (national security) was integral to Bush’s re-election as well as the aforementioned GOP gains in Congress, it overshadowed the fact that the Republican president was at direct odds with his conservative base on at least three issues: runaway spending, massive debt, and illegal immigration.

Ordinarily, a presidential election might have sorted out matters, with the nominee taking the GOP on a newly defined course. But McCain’s emergence only underscored the problem. On any given day during fall 2008, McCain could be found appealing to conservatives on taxes, terrorism, and the Supreme Court. Or he might be playing up his “maverick” credentials as a nonconservative (some would say, non-Republican) on global warming, Guantánamo, campaign finance, and federal judicial appointments, to name but four issues. How confusing was the McCain brand? Throughout the campaign, the candidate said his political idols were Theodore Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan. One of them raised the tax rate to 90 percent, and the other lowered it to 28 percent. That’s like a Democrat saying he simultaneously worships at the temples of Jesse Jackson and Scoop Jackson.

Granted, McCain could run again in 2012. But he would be 76, which makes another campaign less likely. And that leads to these questions: Who emerges as the party’s standard-bearer, and what will become the new standard for the GOP? Does the party first have to concern itself with a redefined message and then worry about finding an eloquent spokesperson, or is it the other way around? Or, as was the case with Reagan giving his famous speech near the end of the 1964 presidential race, is it more a function of harmonic convergence: the message and messenger finding each other?

THE MESSAGE

Once the intraparty finger-pointing subsides, the GOP can get down to the business of improving its “brand.” That won’t begin until spring, when the party has voted on new congressional leadership and a new chairman of the Republican National Committee.

The maneuvering for the RNC vote bears consideration. Florida Governor Charlie Crist expressed a wish for Jim Greer, his state party’s chair, to assume the national job as of January 2009. Like Crist, Greer is a moderate. Conservatives are prepared to push for an alternative, such as Michael Steele, the African-American former lieutenant governor of Maryland and media pundit.

Bush’s initial course effectively ended on September 11, 2001, with the emergence of antiterrorism as a predominant national issue.

Such votes may seem like inside-the-Beltway baseball, but they’re also a window into a party’s soul. Conservatives will argue that the GOP needs to return to its traditional conservative roots on matters like illegal immigration, the various aspects of which (border security, amnesty, national ID) divide the party. Moderates tend to avoid such wedge issues and instead stress outreach and expanding the loyal Republican base; in Florida, for example, Crist and Greer have embarked on get-out-the-vote efforts targeting Latinos.

The next step in message development is coordination at both the state and the academic level. Historically, Republicans have taken advantage of think tanks as policy repositories—a relationship, some will argue, that frayed during the Bush years. Perhaps the shrunken Republican minority on Capitol Hill will prompt a renewal of those ties. Fifteen years ago, Republicans in Congress worked with Republican governors to showcase government reforms at the state level, such as welfare reform in Wisconsin and criminal justice reform in California. Governors, it turned out, knew what they were doing. From 1990 to 1995, the number of Republican governors nationwide grew from a minority of eighteen to a majority of thirty. But after a net loss of one more governorship in the November election, the number of Republican governors is down to twenty-one, its lowest in nearly two decades—the shallow end of an ideas pool.

THE MESSENGERS

With a changing of the guard in Washington, the question might be: Who’s qualified to speak about the future of the Republican Party—and not too shy to do so before too long in Iowa or New Hampshire?

A few people to keep an eye on as the GOP regroups:

Sarah Palin: She emerged from the election as controversial, polarizing, and electrifying—especially to diehard Republicans in red-state America. Beloved by the talk radio set, Palin seemingly enjoys an inside track as the GOP’s “true” conservative voice.

Mike Huckabee: The darling of the GOP’s “theo-con” faction now hosts a weekly show on Fox. As Reagan showed via his radio commentaries in the years leading up to the 1980 election: Beware a charming man with access to an open mike.

Bobby Jindal: The Louisiana governor and McCain veepstakes contender denies any interest in higher office, yet he set media tongues wagging by traveling to Iowa just three weeks after the presidential election.

Tim Pawlenty: Also a runner-up in the veepstakes, Pawlenty is the rare Republican who can talk about winning in a blue state without ceding his conservative credentials. Call him the Un-Arnold of the GOP.

Haley Barbour: The Mississippi governor earned high marks for his handling of Hurricane Katrina. The thickest accent either side of the Mississippi doesn’t hurt in a party that likes its presidential nominees to come from the Sunbelt/Dixie.

Charlie Crist: The Florida governor’s presence would spark the age-old debate between GOP conservatives and moderates. Crist might want to talk to Rudy Giuliani, who spent nearly $50 million on his presidential effort and secured all of one delegate.

John Thune: The tall, handsome South Dakota senator wins most any telegenics contest. If he wants to run in 2012, he has plenty of time to explain why he was the only member of his state’s delegation to vote for the $700 billion Wall Street “rescue” package.

Mitt Romney: He says he’s not interested in 2012, but the former Massachusetts governor’s Free and Strong America political action committee donated to seventy-five GOP candidates nationwide, plus efforts to stop same-sex marriage in California and marijuana decriminalization in Massachusetts.

Newt Gingrich: Even if he’s not a presidential contender, the former House speaker is still the best political ideas man in the business. As such, he’s a powerful draw on the speech and lecture circuit—and a force for other Republicans to reckon with.

The talk-ocracy: The combined voices of Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, and Laura Ingraham reach millions of Republicans five days a week, morning, noon, and night. As they proved during the failed immigration debate of 2007, they can torpedo ideas with great ease.

The ink-ocracy: Some Republican-friendly columnists turned on the McCain-Palin ticket; others stayed right amid the wave of rampant Obama worship. How long will it take before they find a new darling to champion?

One final note—and it’s a positive thought that Republicans should take to heart. Political parties, like economies, are cyclic in nature. They rise and fall—and, if they’re smart, learn to adapt to the changing times. Democrats found themselves in a similar valley in January 1989 after the spectacular failure that was the Dukakis campaign. The party soon became embroiled in a fight over a new direction and a new leader. Four years later, it was the Republicans’ turn to agonize. Bill Clinton had just won thirtytwo states; his party controlled both chambers of Congress. Democrats, for that matter, controlled all of Washington. Two years later, the GOP reclaimed fifty-four House seats and eight Senate seats.

Going back further, to 1964, Lyndon Johnson beat Barry Goldwater by 22 percent. Four years later, Richard Nixon began an era of Republican domination of national elections.

The moral of the story is that in American politics, change and rejuvenation are the nature of the beast—even a Republican elephant that’s feeling weary these days.