Invoking Reagan will fizzle

The appearances last week by Chairman Ken Mehlman and Karl Rove at the Republican National Committee meeting cheered the party faithful. Their strong and positive messages were reassuring. But when measured against the party’s communications needs in the present political crisis, these two spokespeople need reinforcements.

The appearances last week by Chairman Ken Mehlman and Karl Rove at the Republican National Committee meeting cheered the party faithful. Their strong and positive messages were reassuring. But when measured against the party’s communications needs in the present political crisis, these two spokespeople need reinforcements.

The Grand Old Party desperately needs some fresh new faces, especially from the ranks of Congress. Mehlman and Rove are political operatives whose motives and methods will always be suspect to many. If we are going to right the upside-down polling numbers on Congress and generic ballots for Congress, we must have genuine, duly elected Republican members leading the charge.

Make no mistake about the situation: Republicans face a tough battle this November to maintain our majority. And as in most crisis-management scenarios, there are both effective and futile strategies for addressing the situation. Last week’s GOP conclave saw some of each.

One particularly insipid and ineffective strategy is talking longingly of our party’s distant heritage, even when the talk is of the sainted Ronald Reagan. Last week’s meeting featured a well-produced video titled “A Tribute to Ronald Reagan.” Similarly, in states where the party’s situation is especially beleaguered, I constantly see party officials invoking Reagan’s legacy to try to make things better.

This strategy is wrong on so many levels that it’s hard to know where to start. For one thing, summoning the specter of Reagan just reminds too many voters how far we’ve fallen. I can imagine a lot of voters sitting there wondering, “Who are these guys? They don’t seem at all like Reagan.”

The fact of the matter is that the former president probably wouldn’t think too kindly of many in the current leadership of the House and Senate. In public policy and political style, he’d be disappointed. And he’d probably be especially annoyed at their clamoring attempt to use him as a lifeboat to escape the coming flood.

But more generally, appeals to heritage are almost always a failure. The desperate marketing tactics of yesteryear to save legacy brands like Pan Am or Oldsmobile frequently encouraged consumers to hearken back to the “good ol’ days.” But these brands disappeared. Losing professional sports teams put on their throwback uniforms to try to regain the mojo of their franchises’ past glories. Yet they lose again.

We see this strategy going on now in an effort to rescue the failing Saab line of automobiles, a company that’s reportedly losing hundreds of millions of dollars annually. Saab’s marketers are pushing a campaign that says Saabs are “born from jets” in an attempt to convince buyers that these Swedish meatballs can fly because Saab has been a distinguished aircraft designer and builder. The New York Times recently cited one ad critic, David Burn, who unmasked Saab’s scheme: “Using a heritage as a sell job is always a last-ditch defense, but even more so when the heritage bears no resemblance to the offspring.”

These aren’t the only reasons to object to such frequent and direct use of Reagan. Someone needs to say that exploiting Reagan is just in bad taste. It gives me the same creepy feeling I get when Ford used digital video of Steve McQueen to drive and sell the new Mustangs or when Frank Sinatra was shown pimping the NBA. The only people who seemed to have understood how to handle this legacy technique properly have been at DaimlerChrysler. That company paired throwback Lee Iacocca with contemporary figures, actor Jason Alexander, Snoop Dogg and a newcomer who played Iacocca’s granddaughter.

If Mehlman could get Snoop to invoke Reagan for our side, I guess that would be rizzle. But without something new, the old-school Reagan stuff will fizzle.

I say forget all that retrospective stuff and get some of our best and brightest young members out front of the campaign to restore a visionary and reformist image for our party. That’s the fresh start that we need.

Hill is director of Hill Research Consultants, a Texas-based firm that has polled for GOP candidates and causes since 1988.