07/31/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Republicans Identify Their Problem: It's the Packaging!

Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota weighed in last Sunday on fellow Republican Governor Mark Sanford of South Carolina:

"Any time you have leading figures who are engaged in behavior that is sad and troubling and hypocritical...It certainly hurts the brand."

The brand? Interesting word choice, and Republicans have been using it quite a bit lately.

We all know that political parties are sold like shampoo or a new car. Yet politics is a somewhat different commodity. The coin of its realm is ideas and good government, not extra conditioning and leather seats.

That's why the ministers of the trade -- politicians -- do themselves a disservice when they speak in the language of advertisers and media consultants.

Talking inside baseball ("My latest internal poll has me up 5% and I've outraised my opponent by $400,000"), instead of, say, jobs and health care, is akin to Toto pulling back the curtain and revealing the mechanics. Such glibness turns public service into a mere game instead of the higher calling it should be, at least on a good day.

Let's be clear: people understand that running for high office is a business that requires professional merchandising. After 200 years, we know the drill. At the end of the day, however, we usually vote on the ideas and vision of the candidates. This is why Barack Obama is president.

Republicans need to focus on substance, if they can, rather than worry about re-branding. There is evidence this might be difficult.

In September 2002, six months before the Iraq invasion, Bush Chief of Staff Andy Card explained why the long-planned war blueprint wasn't rolled out for citizen consumption until after Labor Day: "From a marketing point of view," he said smugly, "you don't introduce new products in August."

No wonder the GOP sees its current state of affairs as a perception problem, something that can be fixed with make-up and better lighting.

Good luck with that.