The Republican brand – does it matter?

By Bob Gardner

In case you missed it, the Republican brand is in trouble. (I’m speaking nationally. In California, it’s non-existent.)

Today’s GOP is not so grand, definitely old and a kinda-sorta party. This has been confirmed from all ends of the age spectrum, from college Republicans to Bob Dole.

Hispanics hate us. Young people think we’re dinosaurs on social issues. Conservative talk show hosts say we’re unprincipled, spineless compromisers. The establishment media loves to play up our internal differences and squabbles, parsing the differences between, say, Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz.

So what’s a Party to do?

Yes, we hold the House, a majority of governorships and state legislatures, but the funk is pervasive. Should we go more Tea Party, or would a revival of the moderate wing help the brand? Not much agreement. But just because we as a party are factionalized, disheartened, depressed and brandless doesn’t mean we can’t continue to win elections. Hell, even if the overall brand is in trouble, it doesn’t mean people won’t buy a product they like. Most people hate Microsoft, but lots of people buy Windows.

Fortunately, we’ve seen this movie before – a long period from 1952 to 1980 – Ike to Reagan – when the Republican Party brand was an albatross. (Now, it’s all George Bush’s fault. Then, it was all Herbert Hoover’s fault.) Yet Republican candidates at all levels were constantly elected throughout the country.

How did they pull this off? Simple: to the extent possible, they stayed in the closet, party-wise. Sure, they were on the ballot as Republicans, and their Democrat opponents took every opportunity to paint them as evil, but many defied gravity. Those who were elected were “yes/but” Republicans. So the message was, “Yes, I’m a Republican, but in spite of your perception of the party, I’m more competent, more trustworthy, more independent and more likeable than my opponent. I’ll do a better job.”

Since most voters still vote for the guy they like best, regardless of party brand or actual accomplishments (see: Obama, Barack H.), this strategy has legs. Personality, intelligence, integrity, conviction – plus people and political skills don’t hurt either.

Dems, of course, do the same thing. When was the last time a candidate, outside of California or Massachusetts, got on TV to proclaim his undying liberalism? Now, they’re “progressives” – funnily enough a former Republican term. And in competitive districts there will be collective amnesia on their votes for Obamacare, and long explanations placing the blame elsewhere for its miserable rollout.

So don’t despair, Republicans. Our brand may be in the tank, but a basic Republican values message – less intrusive government, lower taxes, a booming economy and a strong defense – will still resonate and sell when delivered by the right candidate.

While the Party sorts out the branding, we still have elections to win. And after we win, let’s hope great candidates turn into great elected officials. That’s the best brand builder there is.

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Bob Gardener is president of The Advocacy Group, Inc. in San Francisco and has done political ads for Gerald Ford, Dick Cheney, George HW Bush, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Meg Whitman. He lives in Sonoma.