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Lipstick on a Pig: Democrats ‘Branding’ Efforts Won’t Be Easy

It’s official. The “extreme makeover” has begun. We learned this week in Roll Call (“Democrats Look for Expert Help,” Feb. 17) that House and Senate Democratic leaders have “launched a major internal effort to craft a new party brand.” [IMGCAP(1)]

Apparently, they think they’ve got some “catching up to do in language” and are looking for a new party slogan — something catchy like “compassionate conservatism,” without the conservatism.

So, who do they turn to for advice? A professor from one of the nation’s most liberal universities, a former conservative-turned-liberal writer with a big ax to grind, and an anti-war social activist who is also a self-described evangelical Christian to name three. And what do these folks have to say?

Liberal minister Jim Wallis, who was the featured speaker at a conference of Congressional Democrats in early January, told PBS’ “Frontline” that Bush’s National Cathedral speech in the days after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks was a “war speech” that called the nation to arms from the pulpit and claimed “a divine mission for our nation to rid the world of evil.”

“That is not only bad foreign policy or presumptuous foreign policy — I would say it’s idolatrous foreign policy to claim God’s purpose for that mission,” Wallis said. He then went on to call Bush’s foreign policy “dangerous” and asked, “What about the evil we have committed, that we are complicit in?”

David Brock, the journalist who switched ideologies in a well-publicized political conversion, has called conservative media “verbal brownshirts” whose “Republican noise machine” will continue to dominate “until its capacities to spread filth are somehow eradicated.” In remarks to a group of Washington interns, Brock said the conservative media is “simply willing to lie.”

According to George Lakoff, a professor of linguistics at the University of California at Berkeley who has been tapped for the Democrats’ branding team, “Social conservatives have long sought to destroy Social Security and Medicare,” he says because conservatives see social programs as “immoral” and attack them so “businesses can make more money.”

I’m not knocking the Democrats’ decision to undertake a branding effort. It’s smart. Republicans did exactly the same thing after their losses in the 1998 elections.

At that time then-House GOP Conference Chairman J.C. Watts (Okla.), aided by Rep. Pete Hoekstra (R-Mich.) and then-Rep. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) understood that for the Republicans to be successful, the party had to do a better job of communicating its ideas to people in a personal and persuasive way and worked to develop a “solutionist” branding strategy. About that time, I wrote in Policy Review that voters choose their party or candidate based on perceived benefits, image and ability to perform, as well as shared value systems.

To quote myself: “The degree to which parties and candidates are successful in creating a popular ‘brand,’ dictates the competitive edge they will enjoy in the future.”

House Republicans worked hard to create a brand that was anchored in real solutions — offering voters solid ideas on a range of issues from education to economic policy to health care. After the ’98 elections, Republicans had a 36 percent favorable rating. In a January 2005 New Models survey, Congressional Republicans were at 54 percent favorability.

In 2000, candidate George W. Bush rebranded the party with his “compassionate conservatism” that meshed neatly with Republicans’ Congressional strategy already in play. What better example of Republican values of hope and opportunity than his No Child Left Behind education reform?

Bush and Congressional Republicans created a new brand for the party the right way, by presenting their party’s values to voters through new ideas. And they didn’t stop after the 2000 election. Their successful effort to eliminate the death tax and the marriage penalty during Bush’s first term reinforced their brand image as a party of fairness and family values.

In a CNN/USA Today/Gallup survey (Feb. 4-6), respondents were asked whether the policies, proposed by Republican and Democratic Congressional leaders, would move the country in the right direction or were on the wrong track. Republican policies got a right track/wrong track of 50-36 percent; Democrat proposals a negative, 41-43 percent.

The party favorable/unfavorables should also be a wake-up call for Democrat leaders. Respondents gave the Republican Party a 56-39 percent favorable/unfavorable while the Democratic Party got a 46-47 percent favorable/unfavorable rating.

So how is the Democratic branding process going? House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has taken to the House floor to quote scripture. Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has set up a war room to combat the Republican majority, and even Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) said it was time Democrats talked more about values.

All of this is well and good. If the last three elections are any indication, Democrats do need to re-examine their party’s values. But they must understand that changing a brand begins with recognizing that the product they are selling must be grounded in ideas that resonate with mainstream Americans.

A slogan isn’t a substitute for real solutions; and as the old saying goes, “You can’t put lipstick on a pig.”

David Winston is president of The Winston Group, a Republican polling firm.

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