Monday, June 30, 2008

What’s in a Name for a Political Party? Maybe Victory in ’08

By Stuart Rothenberg

The other day, my wife, who keeps up on current affairs but is hardly a political junkie, told me that after following the presidential campaign and hearing daily about the Republican Party’s problems, she had an idea for the GOP: It should change its name.

We’ve all heard over and over that the Republican “brand” is damaged, and that that problem is a weight around the neck of Sen. John McCain’s (Ariz.) presidential bid, as well as around the necks of downballot candidates for office. It’s hard to argue with that view, since every poll shows the voters have a negative view of the GOP.

That leaves Republican strategists with two choices: Change the party’s image in a hurry, or dump the brand and launch a new one.

Change the party’s reputation between now and November? Surely you jest! That simply isn’t possible. With President Bush still in the White House through the November elections and the party unable to get much traction anywhere, it’s impossible for the party to remake itself.

Talking about re-branding the GOP over the next five months, in the middle of a presidential campaign and during a Congress in which Democrats have most of the weapons, is sheer fantasy.

So the Republicans — let’s keep calling them that for the moment — need to drop their brand and roll out a new one that is more appealing to voters right now. It’s been done before. Esso became Exxon, after all.

Let’s see, what could Republicans call themselves?

Again, my wife, taking a break from Russian literature and always adept at problem-solving, had an idea.

“How about the ‘Good Guys?’” she asked, demonstrating a latent talent for public relations.

Not bad, I thought. A potentially broad appeal. Hard to pigeonhole ideologically. It’s both a party name and a marketing message.

Consider the headlines: “The Good Guys Respond to Obama Attacks.” “George Soros Pours in Millions to Defeat the Good Guys.” “The Good Guys Argue Obama Lacks Experience, National Security Credentials.”

Most voters barely get past the headlines, and swing voters, in particular, aren’t known for digging deeply into issues or arguments. Re-branding the Republicans as the Good Guys may be all that the party needs to do to attract a generation of voters who think that Angelina Jolie is a deep thinker.

But the “Good Guys” would be a strange name for a political party. It sounds more like a fast-food restaurant or a car wash or an auto dealership. No, that wouldn’t do. The Republicans need to find a new name that clearly conveys the fact that they are a political party.

Then my wife, taking a moment from reading “Crime and Punishment” for the 36th time, chimed in, “How about the ‘Party of Change’? Wouldn’t that sound good?”


You can see the headlines, now, can’t you? “Party of Change Nominates McCain.” “Party of Change United Behind McCain.” “Congressional Leaders of Party of Change Push Education, Tax Reform.” “Obama Attacks the Party of Change.” “It’s Democrats Versus Party of Change.”

So far, Democratic presidential standard-bearer Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.) has fully embraced the “change” message and successfully presented himself as the strongest messenger for change. But with their name change, the Republicans, er, the Party of Change, can roar, “We are the Party of Change, while the Democrats aren’t!”

Talk about altering the political playing field.

Now the key for the Republicans, er, Party of Change, is for Bush to hang onto his Republican label. That way, the newly minted party can “triangulate” by asking voters whether they want to go with the status quo (Bush) or a risky Obama, with the failed Republicans or the dangerous Democrats?

The answer, of course, is neither. Instead, Party of Change leaders such as Sen. Mitch McConnell (Ky.) and Rep. John Boehner (Ohio) can urge Americans to get behind the Party of Change and its nominee, the battle-tested maverick McCain. That way, the newly minted party can tap both the desire for change and the fear of change.

In this way, Republicans can get the albatross of the Republican Party from around their necks, while at the same time picking up the banner of change. Their candidates can rail against the status quo and argue that while Obama talks about change, he isn’t the nominee for the Party of Change! And every time Obama talks about “change,” he’ll be advertising for the Party of Change.

If you listen to Obama and every Democrat running for Congress, they all talk non-stop about change and the nation’s problems without offering many details of what they’ll do. And that’s because so many voters mindlessly respond to calls for change without thinking about what is involved.

Sure, re-branding the Republicans is risky. Some Republicans won’t figure out what’s happening and will end up voting for the now-defunct (except for Bush, Tom DeLay, Larry Craig and a handful of other Republicans who’ll keep the old name to give the Party of Change deniability) brand.

Republican leaders have been talking about trying to figure out what the party stands for. So far, they don’t have a clue. Changing the party’s name would answer that question. The Party of Change stands for, well, CHANGE.

This column first appeared in Roll Call on June 26, 2008. 2008 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.