The Republican Brand

Sometimes things you assume will always be around just go away 

 

Sales are sinking and jobs are disappearing in the auto industry. When production cuts aren’t enough, there is another option: eliminate a division. And that talk is swirling around Ford Motor Co.’s Mercury brand.

 

Founded in 1939 by Edsel Ford as a bridge between Ford’s everyman vehicles and upscale Lincolns, Mercury has lost nearly two-thirds of its annual sales volume since 1999. This year alone, its sales are off 23 percent in the US. On top of that, industry analysts can find no evidence of plans for new products for the division that sells spiffed-up Ford models for some $1,000 more.

 

“The Ford party line is that Mercury has a bright future, but we can’t see any future for them,” analyst Aaron Bragman of industry forecaster Global Insight said. “There’s nothing in the product pipeline for Mercury, and it looks like it’s just going to be left to die.”

 

Ford denies Mercury is going anywhere, but it hasn’t said enough to quell speculation that Mercury will join Oldsmobile and Plymouth in the automotive graveyard.

 

Well, perhaps slapping a nice name on a spiffed-up Ford was a bad idea from the start – but these things have been around forever, and they did make fine hotrods (even if this one has the grill bar from a lowly Ford). But when no one is buying what you’re selling, no matter how spiffed-up, you don’t throw good money after bad – you pack it in. And the market for “bridge products” – basic crap made to look like what it’s not by slapping on some chrome – is tricky. Who would buy such things? Everyone knows you’re faking it, or worse yet, you’re sadly fooling yourself – call it aspiration delusion. People wonder about you.

 

Know your market – those who want reliable, cheap transportation, or those who are willing to pay a lot for neat goodies, and the real thing. But either way, you do want to sell a lot of units, and brand positioning matters – you let people know just what they’re getting when they buy your brand. It’s hard to brag that you’re offering a basic Ford with amusing overlays of fake luxury. In this case the string ran out.

 

This goes for politics too. Democrats are selling a brand, as are Republicans. And it’s deadly when you’re selling something that’s just not there.

 

See Jim VandeHei and Josh Kraushaar in Politico with Racial Woes: GOP Fails To Recruit Minorities:

 

Just a few years after the Republican Party launched a highly publicized diversity effort the GOP is heading into the 2008 election without a single minority candidate with a plausible chance of winning a campaign for the House, the Senate or governor.

 

At a time when Democrats are poised to knock down a historic racial barrier with their presidential nominee, the GOP is fielding only a handful of minority candidates for Congress or statehouses – none of whom seem to have a prayer of victory.

 

It was all sizzle and no steak, as they say. We are told that at the start of the Bush years, the Republican National Committee, working closely with the White House, “vowed to usher in a new era of GOP minority outreach.” And Republicans are now on the verge of going six years without an African-American governor, senator or House member – they will have only one minority governor, Bobby Jindal of Louisiana (Indian-American) when the elections are over, while Democrats have three minority governors and forty-three African-American members of Congress, including Barack Obama. And there’s this – “Democrats also have several challengers in winnable House races who are either black or Hispanic.”

 

What happened? Bush speaks Spanish, sort of, and he’s a “compassionate conservative” – but things got worse:

 

“In 1994, when I first ran, we had 14 African-American Republicans running for Congress. … I was the only one that won that year, but we had 14, and we had some good candidates,” said former Oklahoma Rep. J.C. Watts, one of the party’s most recognized African-American voices. “I am grateful for what Ken Mehlman did when he was RNC chairman, but I knew that wouldn’t last – that was one person. I’ve never gotten the impression that it was institutionalized.”

 

And then there’s Jack Kemp, the former Republican congressman and vice presidential nominee, and former pro-football star and graduate of Fairfax Hill just down the hill, saying he knows what happened – a “pitiful” recruitment effort by his party, as in “I don’t see much of an outreach.”

 

It may be that you just can’t slap the chrome on the Ford:

 

Congressional staffers contacted for reaction on this issue did not want to comment but were clearly uneasy with the party’s all-white slate of viable candidates.

 

In all fairness, Republicans have never been very good at attracting strong minority candidates, especially African-Americans. Only four black Republicans – Watts, former Massachusetts Sen. Edward Brooke, former Connecticut Rep. Gary Franks and the late Illinois Rep. Oscar Stanton De Priest – have been elected to Congress since Reconstruction.

 

Since Reconstruction? Since the end of the Civil War? Oh my. And this:

 

The exit polling data for House races in 2006 showed the depth of the GOP’s outreach crisis. Republican candidates won 11 percent of the black vote and 30 percent of the Hispanic vote.

 

It seems you cannot sell what isn’t there.

 

And you know what’s there. See this Kathleen Parker column in the Jewish World Review that has caused quite a stir:

 

That’s how 24-year-old Josh Fry of West Virginia described his preference for John McCain over Barack Obama. His feelings aren’t racist, he explained. He would just be more comfortable with “someone who is a full-blooded American as president.”

 

Matthew Yglesias:

 

When I read this in a fog, not realizing who Parker was, I just assumed that was a set-up for a column about racist opposition to Barack Obama and skipped past the rest. But no! Parker is endorsing Fry’s allegedly non-racist sentiments here. And yet, how could sentiments get any more clearly racist than by making explicit references to alleged deficiencies in Obama’s bloodlines?

 

Parker later cashes out the concept more thoroughly as “It’s about blood equity, heritage and commitment to hard-won American values. And roots.”

 

Again, blood equity? Heritage? That’s not racist code words, she’s just saying directly that Obama lacks the appropriate ancestry to be President and also that in virtue of his ancestry he’s probably lazy.

 

Yglesias points to Jonathan Chait at the New Republic noting the similarity here to some “traditional tropes of anti-Semitism” – “a device that’s historically been used to deny the possibility that rootless, cosmopolitan Jews can be full members of a society.”

 

Yglesias:

 

More broadly, it nicely dovetails with the anti-immigrant sentiment currently blossoming on the right as we learn that people with unduly recent roots abroad lack what it takes for full-bloodedness. How disgusting.

 

Yep, there’s a cheap Ford chassis under that shiny chrome.

 

And in the New Yorker, George Packer offers full documentation of what seems to be the fall of conservatism, or the failure of the brand:

 

… the polarization of America, which we now call the “culture wars,” has been dissipating for a long time. Because we can’t anticipate what ideas and language will dominate the next cycle of American politics, the previous era’s key words – “elite,” “mainstream,” “real,” “values,” “patriotic,” “snob,” “liberal” – seem as potent as ever. Indeed, they have shown up in the current campaign: North Carolina and Mississippi Republicans have produced ads linking local Democrats to Jeremiah Wright, Barack Obama’s controversial former pastor. The right-wing group Citizens United has said that it will run ads portraying Obama as yet another “limousine liberal.” But these are the spasms of nerve endings in an organism that’s brain-dead.

 

Among Republicans, there is no energy, no fresh thinking, no ability to capture the concerns and feelings of millions of people. In the past two months, Democratic targets of polarization attacks have won three special congressional elections, in solidly Republican districts in Illinois, Louisiana, and Mississippi. Political tactics have a way of outliving their ability to respond to the felt needs and aspirations of the electorate: Democrats continued to accuse Republicans of being like Herbert Hoover well into the nineteen-seventies; Republicans will no doubt accuse Democrats of being out of touch with real Americans long after George W. Bush retires to Crawford, Texas. But the 2006 and 2008 elections are the hinge on which America is entering a new political era.

 

It’s the end of the brand. David Frum, the speechwriter who gave us the Axis of Evil, knows it, and George Packer says that David Brooks is even more dejected:

 

When I met David Brooks in Washington, he was even more scathing than Frum. Brooks had moved through every important conservative publication – National Review, the Wall Street Journal editorial page, the Washington Times, the Weekly Standard – “and now I feel estranged,” he said. “I just don’t feel it’s exciting, I don’t feel it’s true, fundamentally true.” In the eighties, when he was a young movement journalist, the attacks on regulation and the Soviet Union seemed “true.” Now most conservatives seem incapable of even acknowledging the central issues of our moment: wage stagnation, inequality, health care, global warming. They are stuck in the past, in the dogma of limited government. Perhaps for that reason, Brooks left movement journalism and, in 2003, became a moderately conservative columnist for the Times. “American conservatives had one defeat, in 2006, but it wasn’t a big one,” he said. “The big defeat is probably coming, and then the thinking will happen. I have not yet seen the major think tanks reorient themselves, and I don’t know if they can.” He added, “You go to Capitol Hill – Republican senators know they’re fucked. They have that sense. But they don’t know what to do. There’s a hunger for new policy ideas.”

 

But they’re probably still driving Mercury sedans. See Kevin Drum with this assessment:

 

The great liberal wave that lasted from the 30s through the 70s was fundamentally based on three things: middle class wage growth, the construction of a social safety net, and the individual rights revolution. Its other pathologies aside, liberalism’s big problem by the end of the 70s was that it had essentially won most of these battles. Not all of them. No movement ever wins all its battles. But once you win two-thirds of them, it’s hard to sustain the kind of momentum it takes to win the rest.

 

And that’s the problem, but now, for conservatives, Drum says it’s even worse:

 

Modern movement conservatism was also fundamentally based on three things: low taxes, anti-communism, and social traditionalism. (“Small government” was never more than a fig leaf.) Today communism is gone (and Islamofascism has failed to rally the troops in the same way), taxes literally can’t be lowered any more, and sex-and-gender fundamentalism has become an albatross that’s rapidly producing a generation of young voters more repelled by conservatism than any generation since World War II. Even in the late 70s, there were plenty of traditionally liberal goals still to be fought for. Not enough to build a winning coalition around, but still something. Modern conservatives don’t even have that. The culture war is pretty much all they have left, and its clock has run out.

 

So we have that aspiration delusion, even if there are exceptions:

 

They won’t be willing to say this during a presidential campaign, but there are at least half a dozen smart Republican senators who understand this and don’t really want to go down with the ship. So even if Democrats don’t win a filibuster-proof majority in November – as they almost certainly won’t – it’s likely that there will still be enough survival-inspired GOP senators around to give Barack Obama the votes he needs to make a difference. If that’s the case, and if Obama has the courage of his convictions, his first two years could be historic.

 

Perhaps they should walk away from Bush, but that’s tricky, as Patrick Ruffini argues:

 

President Bush is a lame duck. His term expires in eight months. Politically speaking, John McCain is the leader of the party. Bush’s term will overlap that of the 111th Congress by a whopping 17 days. Why should Republican Congressional candidates take the bait by positioning themselves vis a vis someone who will be a political non-factor once they take office? If they embrace President Bush, it’s political poison. If they make a fuss of distancing themselves, it guarantees headlines with Candidate X and Bush in close proximity, and looks politically motivated. Don’t take the bait.

 

The challenge for Republicans is not to support Bush or to reject Bush but to transcend Bush. We are quickly nearing the point where the last piece of meaningful legislation will cross this President’s desk. To suggest that Republicans might want to get around to crafting a post-Bush agenda ignores the fact that the post-Bush era is already upon us. It began March 4, when John McCain secured 1,191 delegates. Start acting like it. John McCain is the only national Republican local Republicans should be talking about.

 

Park the Mercury. Buy a Mini Cooper. It’s a new world – for better or worse, you have McCain. Deal with it.

 

But Andrew Sullivan says that will be hard:

 

It is good advice, but the voters will nonetheless find it hard to erase eight years of Republican governance when they approach the next GOP candidate. Bush is the reality they have to run with. He’s certainly the reality Obama will be running against.

 

What are you going to do? And Matthew Yglesias adds another factor:

 

It’s interesting… that we’re seeing the emergence of a bifurcated media landscape and political conversation. People over a certain age exist in a universe where it’s almost as if the web doesn’t exist and things like the nightly news, the daily paper, and the cable networks are utterly dominant. For people below a certain age, the nightly news is totally irrelevant, the daily paper is primarily a website, and things like blogs and web videos matter a great deal.

 

This is one thing people forget when discussing… that people who watched Nixon debate Kennedy on television liked Kennedy, but those who listened on the radio liked Nixon. In 1960 television was still a relatively new technology, and an older, late-adopter segment of the population didn’t have it and listened to debates on the radio. That was a Nixon-friendly demographic, just as early-adopters of web technology today are Obama-friendly.

 

Damn – there is that technology gap, and the old folks who don’t get the new world.

 

And just what the heck is conservatism now? Austin Bramwell here offers a definition:

 

Conservatism is the defense of legitimacy wherever it happens to exist. “Legitimacy” here is defined in the empirical, Weberian sense: that is, an institution is legitimate if and only if the opinion has become widespread that it is right (for whatever reason or lack thereof) to obey it. The conservative, in short, cultivates obedience to existing institutions. This definition, I submit, has all the advantages of the conventional definitions, none of their defects, and some important advantages of its own.

 

Yeah, but will it sell? The product seems to be obedience. Try selling that product to fractious Americans. That’s like trying to sell us a 1968 Rambler American, as if it’s new.

 

And selling religion can just get absurd:

 

Georgia Republican Party chairwoman Sue Everhart said Saturday that the party’s presumed presidential nominee has a lot in common with Jesus Christ. “John McCain is kind of like Jesus Christ on the cross,” Everhart said as she began the second day of the state GOP convention. “He never denounced God, either.”

 

Everhart was praising McCain for never denouncing the United States while he was being tortured as a prisoner of war in Vietnam. “I’m not trying to compare John McCain to Jesus Christ, I’m looking at the pain that was there,” she said.

 

Some marketing campaigns are just doomed to fail.

 

Marketers rely on anecdotal data to figure out how to get ahead of the curve, looking for trends. See one of Andrew Sullivan’s readers with this tale:

 

I just got back from visiting family in rural East Central Minnesota.

 

My parents had been very Republican in the 80s and 90s, even being active in the county Republican Party. Disillusionment began to set in, though, in the late 90s and 2000s, and not just with the Republicans, but with the whole political system – “nothing changes, no matter who’s in charge.”

 

Having personally bought into this presidential campaign to the point where I contributed money to a campaign for the first time in my life (and I’m in my mid-40s) I wanted to at least get a sense of where they were and maybe urge them to a little less disillusionment.

 

When I told them I’d contributed to Obama, my mother volunteered that she expected she’d vote for McCain, but she really kinda hoped Obama would win. I said what I could to encourage this – that it really looks like he wants to change the way politics have been done over the last two decades. Then she also told me that her sister-in-law had dropped in for a visit a couple weeks ago and told her “I don’t care, I’m voting for Obama!”

 

These women are very white, in their 60s, raised poor, made it up to working-class with their husbands, and are all now retired. And now looking that they might help carry Minnesota for Obama in the fall.

 

It seems the Republican brand is dead.

 

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About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
This entry was posted in Bush, Conservatism, McCain, Republicans, The Republican Brand. Bookmark the permalink.

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