Why the Republican debates are being frowned upon by the GOP establishment
The Republican Party has always been adept at selling its brand to the American people. This has been out of necessity, as the GOP’s message itself has never been particularly appealing to the public at large; thus, it’s always had to be beautifully marketed. The packaging of the Republican product was once wrapped in jingoistic rhetoric and topped with a sense of professionalism. Uniformity was also important. The packaging needed to be the same for everyone trying to sell the product—sort of like communist party discipline.
Candidates’ “competency” would come into question when they deviated from the party line. If the message of cutting taxes for millionaires and redistributing middle class wealth to corporations under the age-old guise of ‘defense spending’ were going to resonate, it would need a consistent and sterling marketing strategy.
Some things haven’t changed, like the tax-cutting, ‘tough-on-defense’ message. But established GOP strategists are having a problem with the way the 2012 presidential hopefuls are selling it. The Republican debates are where “the embarrassing moments are piling up,” the New York Times explains:
Some veteran Republicans are beginning to wonder whether the cumulative effect weakens the party brand, especially in foreign policy and national security, where Republicans have typically dominated Democrats.
A former chief of staff to President Ronald Reagan, Ken Duberstein, described a recent GOP debate as an “animal house” and a “food fight.” He could have been referring to Governor Rick Perry forgetting the third agency of government he would eliminate. Texas Congressman Ron Paul tried to help him out, but the EPA was not, fortunately, on the list. Or perhaps it was Representative Michelle Bachmann’s lack of geographical literacy, apparently mistaking Libya as a non-African nation.
Duberstein continued, “Honestly, the Republican debates have become a reality show. People have to be perceived as being capable of governing this country, of being the leader of the free world.”
As undemocratic as it may seem, “perception” is the X factor of the modern American electoral process. The point of having Republican and Democratic strategists who comprise the party establishment is to make sure that the candidates say the right phrases and run the right campaign ads so that people perceive them as “being capable of governing this country.” Naturally, image projection has become the focal point of the parties.
One image that GOP strategists are not interested in projecting is incompetency, or perhaps, a perception of “animal houses”. Another is a lack of discipline, such as “food fights.” Incompetency is when a candidate like Herman Cain openly reveals that he would “try to overthrow the regime” in Iran. Competency is displayed when a candidate shows intent to prospectively bomb Iran if it gets a nuclear weapon, because that’s what a good Texan who puts America first would do.
Food fights, like when Texas Governor Rick Perry called the other candidates “heartless,” just embarrass the hell out of everybody, to borrow a phrase from Henry Kissinger, and make the message seem much less convincing. Newt Gingrich, an establishment favorite known for being the GOP’s ‘ideas man,’ pointed out at the Las Vegas primary debate, “interparty bickering isn’t the path to the White House.” Animal houses and food fights simply don’t contribute to the electability of the candidates.
Thus, the Republican establishment isn’t looking forward to the exposure that more debates will bring. The candidates lack political substance, as they bear the vastly unpopular Republican economic message. Too many gaffes and mistakes could seriously damage the party’s image in 2012 and the public’s perception of the candidates. This, of course, puts a major dent in a time-tested marketing strategy.
No establishment Republican understands this better than Karl Rove, a fierce critic of the current crop of Republican presidential candidates. Less than a decade ago, Rove served as the principle strategist of the Bush campaign and brilliantly programmed liberals’ mocking critiques of Bush’s accent to contrast with his “brush cutting” Texan image. By isolating the ‘elitist liberals who run the world from the coasts and simply don’t understand the little guys in the Midwest,’ Rove managed to create a new abstract opponent comprised of elite leftists; one that’s only visible if the campaign’s marketing is rampant, convincing, and can suspend disbelief enough to create an internal logic within the public.
This kind of marketing is only possible when “the perfect candidate” is found, and kept “away from the media as much as possible,” as documented by investigative journalist John Anderson. In the 2000 and 2004 elections, the Republican establishment had the perfect candidate. Of course, for most Americans, President Bush was anything but perfect.
Only time will tell whether the animal houses and food fights will seriously damage the Republican Party’s brand in 2012. For now, they’re just hurting the candidates, who are inadvertently implementing a new strategy of “tempting fate, and daring America to vote for a completely undesirable candidate.” The GOP establishment has yet to express concern that something could be wrong with the message itself, but alas, that’s not what really matters.