That leaves Plan C, by far the most widespread, if unruly, of the Republican salvage plans on view: a wholesale rebranding of the GOP. The only trouble with this approach is that there is no agreement among its adherents about how to go about it, or what the new brand should offer beyond a front man who speaks Spanish, owns an iPod, and is as comfortable with Twitter and Instagram as Reagan was in front of movie and television cameras. Yet if you get to the bottom of all the contradictory rebranding scenarios—and factor in the party’s immovable stance in Washington’s sequestration showdown—a plausible, time-honored path to a successful Republican future does emerge, albeit one that is none of the above.
Many Republicans in the rebranding claque, from Virginia governor Bob McDonnell to the ubiquitous pundits Laura Ingraham and S. E. Cupp, believe their party most of all has a “messaging” problem. “This is about tone,” says McDonnell, who posits that Republicans must start “showing people what we’re for instead of what we’re against.” Newt Gingrich says the GOP should be “the happy party.” Reince Priebus, the Republican chairman, proposes building an “exciting party that smiles.” Frank Luntz, the focus-group guru behind Gingrich’s 1994 “Contract With America,” has joined Roger Ailes of Fox News in calling for a whole “new language” (presumably provided by Luntz, for a fee) emphasizing empathy. Ailes has proposed that the negative phrase “illegal immigration” be retired in favor of “a Judeo-Christian approach to immigration.”
The most elaborate pitch I’ve seen for a GOP messaging overhaul was crafted by Mark McNeilly, a former marketing executive who served at IBM during its own rebranding contortions. Writing in the business magazine Fast Company, McNeilly lamented postelection polls showing that voters associate Democrats with terms “appealing to growing segments of the voter population” (that would be “Mainstream, Young, Current, For the People, For Minorities, For Women”) but associate Republicans with “Extreme, Old, Out-of-Date, For the Wealthy, For Whites, For Men.” Among McNeilly’s solutions were for Republicans to push policies that cater to children, promote federalism (and thereby remove social issues, “a big ‘inhibitor to purchase’ ” among young voters, from the national stage), and banish the elephant logo, which “brings nothing positive to the table.” (Perhaps the new logo could be :), in keeping with the advice of Gingrich and Priebus.) McNeilly also wants to retool the acronym GOP by having it stand for “Growth and Opportunity Party” rather than “Grand Old Party.” As he elaborated, grand is “a word no one still alive uses today unless they are referring to a type of piano,” and old is “a negative perception the party needs to move away from.” Helpfully—or not—he cited BP, which morphed from “British Petroleum” to “Beyond Petroleum,” as an example the GOP might profitably follow.
Whether by coincidence or under his tutelage, a striking number of Republican politicians are busy executing ideas in his playbook. For some time, Marsha Blackburn, a television-hogging Republican congresswoman from Tennessee, has been beating the drum for recasting the GOP as the “Great Opportunity Party.” A kinder, gentler postelection Eric Cantor has supplemented his “You Cut” website with a new one under the rubric “Making Life Work” and is now talking about children every chance he can. “What I say is we’ve got a place I think all of us can come together, and that is for the kids,” he said when discussing immigration reform in an appearance last month on Meet the Press. Cantor then moved on to the subject of “a dad here in the inner city,” observing that “what we care about, and what he cares about, is his kids.” Cantor added, “The point is we’ve got to be talking about helping folks,” which meant invoking still another kid: “I’ve got a constituent, she’s 12 years old, her name is Katie. She was diagnosed with cancer at age 1. I mean, can you imagine?” He did not offer Katie any health-care assistance—but did say, “The federal government’s got a role in medical research,” presumably as long as it doesn’t involve stem cells or cost any taxpayer money.
Listening to this pabulum, I find it hard not to think of Veep, the satirical television series I work on, in which the title character, the vice-president, played by Julia Louis-Dreyfus, is constantly pandering to voters with empty slogans like “Politics is about people!” Veep plays it for laughs, and it’s hard to imagine that some voters aren’t laughing at Cantor, Blackburn, Priebus, Gingrich, et al. Equally laughable, I would argue, are the bald attempts at rebranding being practiced by Fox News, which has traded the acrimonious Palin and Dick Morris for the ostensibly more diverse and empathetic Herman Cain and Scott Brown. Surely the same Latino voters who will never forget Romney’s call for immigrant “self-deportation” during the 2012 campaign have similar memories of Cain’s gleeful plug for an electrified border fence with a sign reading IT WILL KILL YOU in both English and Spanish.