Last week, the news that the Republican Party, was kicking off an initiative called the National Council for a New America, as part of an effort to rebrand itself, was somewhat lost due to the extensive coverage of Barack Obama's first hundred days as president and the news of Arlen Specter switching parties. Republican Party heavyweights, from the past and, presumably, future such as Haley Barbour, Mitt Romney, John McCain, Jeb Bush and Bobby Jindal and others behind this initiative apparently think the problem their party faces is one of branding and image, suggesting things may be worse for the GOP than initially thought.
In politics, rebranding generally means shifting emphasis and image away from negative and towards positive associations. This is why President Obama has sought to, and already begun, succeeding in rebranding America. During the presidency of George W. Bush many people around the world began to see our country through a negative prism based on the arrogance and destructive policies of our president. Obama's presidency makes it possible for people to see the US through a different prism, one of hope and opportunity. Importantly, with regards to the notion of rebranding, regardless of whether or not much of our foreign policy may not change all that dramatically during the Obama presidency, the way we present those policies and ourselves will.
In business, rebranding is also what you do when you haven't updated your advertising jingle for too many years, your mascot's clothes need to be updated, or your product's colors need to be brightened or muted because of changes in fashion. The problems the Republican Party faces, however, will not be solved by rebranding. The Republicans don't have problems of slogan or presentation. Their problems go much deeper than that. In these days of increased concern about swine flu, porcine allusions may require even more sensitivity than ever, but simply rebranding the Republican Party by somehow updating its image, with apologies to Sarah Palin, really is putting lipstick on a pig.
The quandary in which the Republican Party now finds itself is not due to a public relations problem, but stems from being strongly identified, and not without good reason, with the Bush administration. The Bush administration is broadly viewed as a failure, not because it didn't present itself well, but because it mishandled both the economy and foreign policy to disastrous effect. Additionally, some of the ideas which have been foundation of the Republican Party have, in the cases of radical social conservatism and unregulated financial sectors, become the views of an increasingly small minority of Americans. Other bedrock Republican views, such as fiscal conservatism and a realist based foreign policy, were abandoned altogether by the Bush administration and the Republican Party in the last decade. These are problems are profound and go to the core not just of the party's image, but to its vision, message and raison d'etre.
The post-Bush Republican Party is not unpopular simply because they are viewed by many as too old, too white, too male or too out of touch with 21st century America, although all those perceptions do not exactly help the party. They are unpopular because they are associated with a failed administration and, due to having become captured by the right wing fringe, are unable to contribute serious, remotely popular ideas to the debate. Rebranding may help a little, but it will not resolve these fundamental problems.
What is most striking about the Republican Party's rebranding campaign, as presented thus far, is that they seem to have taken much of the current leadership of the party and simply given them a new name, suggesting that they think that all Barbour, McCain, Bush et. al. need to win back lost support is a new website and clever title. If the Republican Party wants to become a relevant force in American politics once again, they should think less about branding and more about substance. A post-Bush Republican Party needs to be defined, but this will not be easy in this period of the Obama ascendancy. Simply attacking the popular and politically deft president has done nothing to broaden the Republican base. Instead this approach has mobilized, and empowered, those segments of the Republican coalition who can most effectively push independent and moderate voters away from the Republican Party. Thus far, the Republicans have largely avoided doing the hard work of thinking through viable policy solutions, governing well in the states where the party still controls the government or creating a viable 21st century vision of conservatism, but if they don't start doing this hard work sooner or later, the Republican Party's path back to relevancy will be even more arduous.