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Howard Fineman Headshot

'Democrat' Is No Longer A Brand

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WASHINGTON - Even I, old-media guy that I am, did not need the Harvard Business Review to tell me that, in the digital age, branding matters.

But I got the new issue anyway, with the cover that reads, "Social Media and the New Rules of Branding." According to B-school gurus, a company must create and vigilantly protect a clear, coherent message about itself if it wants to thrive in the word-of-mouth shark tank. From logo to language to logistics, it all must be of a piece. Consistency matters. A concise identity counts.

Which got me thinking about the Democrats.

As the lame duck tax debate slogs towards its inevitable conclusion -- nearly $1 trillion worth of extended and new tax cuts over two years -- I'm wondering: what does the brand "Democrat" mean?

If anything.

The Republicans don't have a cool logo but their economic brand is vivid. They're the folks who worship the market, or at least claim to. They always want to cut taxes. They pile up deficits while decrying them. They favor pat-a-cake business regulation.

These days, President Obama is trying to refurbish his own (campaign) brand. He and his aides know how crucial this is. After all, Obama was the first presidential candidate in modern times to have a concise, pictorial, non-verbal summary of what he said he stood for. You remember it: a wide, open road leading to a sunny future. Obama was the "O" in hope, the rising sun.

Well, voters remain deeply pessimistic. The tax-cut deal is nothing more or less than a strong effort -- a last-ditch effort -- to cheer them up, turbo-charge consumer spending and somehow reduce unemployment below 8 percent by 2012. No president since FDR has been reelected with an unemployment rate above that.

So Obama's brand now is: I'm a non-ideological, deal-doing, practical, adult in a sea of extremes and I will somehow get us on that sunny road. Now he's Barry the Cable Guy. He'll "git-r-done."

At least that's the pitch.

But that leaves Democrats trying to figure out who or what they are. It leaves them looking for leaders, ideas and symbols with which to sell their brand, whatever it now is, in the political marketplace.

Polls show that voter-consumers are suffering from what experts call "brand confusion." They can't stand the most visible personal symbols of the congressional party -- Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid -- and voters don't trust the Democratic brand on issues (such as jobs and the economy) as strongly as they used to.

And now comes the "Obama-McConnell tax bill".

First, some caveats about it.

Sure, the tax bill contains an extension of unemployment benefits. But that used to be a matter beyond mere politics, and something Democrats in the old days never claimed as a major achievement. They certainly didn't make it sound like a major social achievement at a time when they controlled the Congress and the presidency and, therefore, were at least partly to blame for the fact that so many people were on the dole in the first place.

The fact that extension is being touted by the White House as a major "get" is a sad commentary on how far to the right our politics is now moving, no matter how many times Tea Party types call Obama a socialist.

Yes, there are some helpful tax credits for the middle class in the bill -- helpful if your household has any income to take the credit against.

And depending on which poll you read, the overall deal is somewhat popular -- perhaps because voters are reacting according to the old Navy crisis motto: "Don't just stand there, do something!" Or the fact that almost no one in America doesn't like a tax cut.

I get all that. But still, something doesn't compute.

Isn't a nearly $1 trillion bill full of tax cuts and industry giveaways what Republicans do? Isn't a bill with an absurdly generous inheritance tax break what Republicans write? Aren't Democrats the "party of the people?" Aren't they the party that believes government programs and policies have a role to play in leveling the playing field, or at least giving everyone a fair chance? Aren't the Democrats worried that all of this tax cutting now will starve the social programs they supposedly cherish? Do they know that they won't be able to push through a change in taxes in 2012 over GOP objections if the economy in fact improves?

Maybe the answer to all of these questions is "no," because it looks now as if most Democrats are going to vote for the bill in the end.

And if they do vote "yes" for the most part, what does it signify -- other than a desperate desire for survival -- about the meaning of "Democrat?"

Brute survival is what the Republicans are about. They are the Darwinian brand even though, ironically, they don't believe in evolution.

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