By Mark Mellman - 05/20/08 06:01 PM EDT
Dear Republican Brethren,
I feel your pain.
Losing three special elections in districts George Bush won by an average of nearly 20 points isn’t so easy. With the Democratic advantage in party identification as large as it’s been for either party in decades, and net evaluations of the Democrats outstripping those of the GOP by nearly 30 points, it is a tough time to be a Republican.
Having lived though 1994, and a few other such cycles, I know what it’s like; and I can hear the (fictionalized) shouting now.
First comes blame. “Fire the deputy at the NRCC.” “The worst candidate I’ve ever seen.” “Why’d we listen to Hastert? He hasn’t talked to real a constituent in a decade.” “Get a new NRCC chairman, now.” “Never hire Wicker’s volunteer coordinator again!” “Who let us become the ‘red’ party? Everyone knows red means danger, stop and communism! Americans don’t vote red, certainly not the Republican base!”
Soon we will hear the critique of technique. “Why in heaven’s name was Woody Jenkins using tri-fold mail pieces?” “You did focus groups with participants sitting in chairs! Everybody knows they only reveal their true feelings when they are standing on their heads.” “We need more tubes coming out of our Internet.”
Finally, the focus turns to solutions. “Find me some commercial branding guys.” “Get some Madison Avenue types.” “Bring in the ethnomusicologists or psycho-biologists or dendrochronologists, fast.” “We brilliantly reduced our message to six words (lower taxes, less government, strong defense), but now the Democrats have one word (change). We need a three-letter message. Figure it out!”
Only people who have never sold a product believe long-term branding is completely separate and apart from the product itself, distinct from its history. Reality may bite, but it matters — a lot.
Imagine yourself as the owner of a chain of fast food emporia. Suddenly two-thirds of your patrons are becoming violently ill after eating at your establishments. Do you scream, “Fire the guy answering the phone! I need a new jingle, stat. Add chicken fingers to the menu. Stop calling those damn things hamburgers. They’re steakburgers, you fool! Micro-target slacker kids looking for an excuse to cut school. They want to get sick!”?
Not if you plan to stay in business more than a week. Before any of those dubious moves are even relevant, you first determine why your product is making people sick and fix it, fast.
Likewise, voters are sick of what you Republicans have wrought, and if you are to have any hope, you need to revamp your policies before reworking your slogan, reassigning your personnel or recording a new jingle.
It’s easy to scapegoat individuals, interpreting their errors as the cause of your plight. But if Asafa Powell were running with a 200-pound weight around his neck, would you force the runner to hang up his cleats, or jettison the weight?
Americans are sick to death of the results you have delivered, and those results are an albatross weighing down every single candidate you field. At home, Republican economic policies have led to exploding gas prices, rising healthcare costs, declining home values and stagnant wages. You’ve squeezed the middle class between prices that are rising and incomes that aren’t.
Abroad, you misled us into a war that no longer has a purpose, only a terrible cost — in lives and treasure.
It’s neither the slogan, nor the ads, nor the personnel, nor even the consultants. It’s the reality — the product — that stinks, and there are only two solutions. Shed your own stench or just wait and hope we stink things up.
On second thought, start the firings, now.
Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has worked for Democratic candidates and causes since 1982, including Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) in 2004.