Do Parties Really Need to Rebrand Themselves?

The Republican "rebranding" effort may be on temporary hiatus as all the party's factions come together in the vain hope that they may finally have something to impeach Barack Obama over, but as soon as these various non-scandals, faux-scandals, and mini-scandals fade, the GOP will surely get back to bickering over how it can pull itself out of its electoral doldrums. In wondering where they might go, The Atlantic's Molly Ball does the logical thing and seeks out some veterans of a prior party rebranding, the Democratic effort of the late 1980s and early 1990s, centered around the Democratic Leadership Council. Their take isn't too surprising—they think what the GOP needs now is to do what they did then. But I think there's an important point missing from this discussion and the way we talk about this history. The story everyone tells is that there are two paths to take, one of which leads to failure and one to success, and the argument is over which is which. Should the party be more true to its philosophy and sell that philosophy better, or should it reorient itself to respond to changing times? Here's how Ball's article closes:

Watching the GOP's struggles, former DLCers say they recognize all the old symptoms—the alibis, the search for a procedural panacea, the party committee dominated by diehards. But on the question of whether the Republican Party has just been through its version of 1988, they're not so sure. As Will Marshall put it: "They know they have a political problem—that's obvious. But I don't think they've come to grips with the fundamental issue, which is their governing philosophy. I think they're going to have to lose one more."

Sounds reasonable enough. But I think the degree to which political success comes from the public agreeing with you on issues is being dramatically overstated. If you look at the ups and downs of the parties over the last 20 years, a couple of other factors—timing, and what your opponents do—matter a whole lot more.

Let's quickly run over this history, starting with the Democrats' first revival, with the election of Bill Clinton in 1992. Was it important that Clinton was a centrist Democrat who sought to neutralize the party's electoral problems on being seen by white voters as too solicitous of black people and too soft on crime?11If you're too young to remember the 1992 campaign, Google "Ricky Ray Rector" and "Sister Souljah" to see what I'm talking about. Sure. But had the country not been in a recession in 1992, that wouldn't have been enough. And if that was a Democratic revival that went beyond one guy getting elected, it didn't last very long; two years later, Republicans took over both houses of Congress.

That brings us to the opposition factor. After the Gingrich Revolution, voters got to see the new version of the Republican party, and they were completely turned off. In 1996, Clinton ran one ad after another featuring pictures of Bob Dole and Newt Gingrich together to taint Dole with the stain of the unpopular House Speaker. But what got him re-elected, more than anything else, was the humming economy. We could argue about how much credit he deserved for it, but the importance it had was undeniable, and it wasn't a judgment voters were making about his New Democrat philosophy that got him a second term.

Then four years later, despite all that New Democrat repositioning, George W. Bush gets elected and the Democratic Party is back in the toilet. And what brought them back? Was it yet another repositioning? Nope. It was George W. Bush. The abysmal failure of his presidency was what allowed Democrats to win back both houses of Congress in 2006. Then in 2008, Barack Obama got elected because of both a continued rejection of Bush and the economic meltdown.

My point is, all of this back-and-forth happened despite any ideological movement that was going on within each party. Right now the Republicans are indeed grossly out of step with the public on issues. But they were just as out of step in 2010, when they won a huge victory in the midterm elections. It isn't that issues don't matter, but a lot of the ideological judgments voters make are relative. The Democratic party is benefiting from the fact that Republicans look like (and are!) a bunch of reckless, irresponsible extremists. Could they benefit from becoming more sane? Sure. But given the right circumstances, they can win even if they get no less crazy than they are right now. If you're in the opposition and the president's policies fail, you'll be rewarded; if they succeed, you'll be in trouble (which, of course, is why Republicans have worked so hard to make sure Obama's policies fail). Nobody is going to be hailed as a brilliant party strategist for saying, "We just need to wait for things to turn in our favor, and everything will be OK." But that's probably the truth.

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