A lot of ink has been shed this election cycle on the topic of "rebuilding the Republican brand." Indeed, the Grand Old Party finds itself at a most dire juncture. On one side it has an incumbent leader with historically low approval ratings who is losing mounting court cases on the philosophy of national security he put in place and who is battling multiple catastrophes that fundamentally undermine the Republican philosophy of governance and economics. On the other side the party is fielding a presidential candidate whose main appeal has been his refusal to toe the party line and a vice presidential candidate who caters to one constituency of the party and is mostly unappealing to the rest. The GOP, three weeks from the presidential election, is in the throes of a wrenching identity crisis.
As a brand marketer, I spend my time crafting strategy and messages that enable brands to connect with consumers in a meaningful way. Cohesion, consistency and lifestyle appeal are crucial. In short, you want consumers to see your product and say "I know that brand, and it's the brand for people like me."
Warriors vs. Thinkers
In the past, Republicans have been successful at defining themselves in that light, using wedge issues to illuminate and exaggerate the difference between demographics, ultimately concluding "Republicans are people like me." We all remember Karl Rove's three winning Gs: God, guns and gays. With a vast, coordinated effort in 2000 and 2004, Republicans introduced state-level ballot initiatives that dovetailed with their national strategy of painting their opponents as "extreme" and "different" -- and therefore unacceptable.
But in 2008, something has broken down for Republicans, and there's more to blame than just a stacked deck. The GOP has a new face, and it's not the face of Sarah Palin. It is the face of anger, hatred and violence, and it threatens to eat away the Republican Party from the inside.
Led by war hero McCain and bellicose strategist Steve Schmidt in its battle to defeat a former president of the Harvard Law Review, the Republicans have divided the nation into "warriors" and "thinkers." Schmidt is a Rove protege who shares his mentor's love of underhanded tactics but none of his subtlety. Schmidt's strategy: boil Rove's signature wedge attack down to its most basic level, "otherness," and wage a campaign on this topic alone. This means painting Senator Obama as "elite" or "exotic" -- code words for "different" which, when applied to an ethnic minority, add up to clear race-baiting.
A New Republican Voice
On some fronts, his efforts have seen short-term success. Schmidt's insistence on the unorthodox (read: mavericky) choice of running mate Sarah Palin energized the base in a way that John McCain alone (or McCain's preferred pick of pro-choice Democratic exile Joe Lieberman) never could have. And recently, as the campaign reverted to character attacks, this newly energized base has taken their passion to a new and scary level.
In just the past week, Republicans at McCain and Palin speeches have shouted epithets, threatened violence and directed racial slurs at those in attendance -- and the news media has taken note. With the race heating up and policy debate taking a backseat to negative campaigning, this type of vitriol is becoming the main story in itself.
As McCain and Palin do nothing to tamp down the bloodlust among their supporters, they tacitly facilitate the rise of a new Republican voice. An angry, insular, xenophobic voice. And in so doing, the Republican Party, already facing an identity crisis, is defining itself anew for the next generation of voters.
The New "Others"
The American people are not, by and large, racists. We are a reasonable people who excel when the chips are down. We have been given to mob mentality and flights of fancy at times in our history, but what has made the country a superpower is its people. In 1968, when Robert F. Kennedy declared, shortly before his death, that the United States would elect an African-American president "in the next 40 years," this was a statement of his firm confidence, not that African-Americans were "worthy," but that American voters were wise. He believed in the ability of the American public to make decisions based on rationale and decency.
And in that sense, those who would advocate violence ("kill him!" - Florida, "off with his head!" - Pennsylvania), or make ridiculous, wild-eyed accusations ("terrorist!" - Pennsylvania) or hurl epithets at a professional doing his job ("sit down, boy!" - Florida) -- they are the ones who are "not like us."
At a time when a generation of new voters is swept up in a tide of support for Barack Obama, the GOP faces a bleak choice. Continuing this spiral away from decency into violent xenophobia; that is, toward extremism and away from the fundamental tenets of love and unselfishness that tie all religious traditions together. The party, with Schmidt at the tiller, is risking permanent damage to the Republican brand.
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