The GOP’s battle of the blands

STONE the crows! It’s the start of the circus season in the US. No, not the “political circus” President Obama wants to stop.[i] This largely consists of Republican congressional clowns not doing what Democrat funsters demand.

The performance the Crows are consumed by is the three ring circus of the Republican primaries. Although it’s little less than a year until the GOP nominating convention in Tampa the pie fight has started. [ii]

And already the entarted are giving up or being written off.  Former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty, a five minute front runner, bailed after the Iowa straw poll last month.[iii] Tea Party darling Michele Bachman appeared out of her depth at this week’s candidate debate in California and senior staff are already abandoning her troupe.[iv] And Sarah Palin is only infrequently sighted on the same political planet as everybody else, focusing on her Tea Party pals rather than all Republicans. [v]

It’s all typical of the party pie-fights that occur as an opposition party, with no agreed nominee in waiting, faces a first term president. They are exhausting and expensive and in more than money. The caucuses, straw polls and primaries chew through policies which merit a debate they don’t get because candidates dare not risk producing plans that some party candidates will throw in their face.

This is certainly what happened to Rick Perry in last week candidates’ debate when he explained how social security is unsustainable. “It is a Ponzi scheme to tell our kids that are 25 or 30 years today you’re paying into a program that’s going to be there … Anybody that’s for the status quo with social security today is involved with a monstrous lie to our kids, and it’s not right,” he said [vi]

It was a gift to the other front runner Mitt Romney who replied, “You can”t say that to tens of millions of Americans who live on social security … Our nominee has got to be someone who isn’t committed to abolishing social security … it is working for millions of Americans and I”ll keep it working for millions of Americans.”[vii]

Governor Romney is right; you can’t unsettle the old over the payment of their pensions if you want to win the GOP nomination without a lot avoidable pain. As Toby Zeigler explains, there’s a reason why social security is called the third rail of American politics, “that’s ‘cause the third rail is where the power is.” [viii]

But Romney is wrong to think that he, or anybody else, can fix it without politically unpopular reform. And Governor Perry is right to raise the issue – because social security is unsustainable.

Some 50 million Americans, or one in four households, receive social security. This makes it politically untouchable – if it was not for the problem Perry points to.

In 1950, there were 16 contributors to the social security system for every recipient. Now, thanks to an ageing population, there are 3.1 workers kicking the tin for each beneficiary, a figure which will drop to 2.5 in 15 years. On existing projections, the trust fund will be empty in 2037. Last December, President Obama’s budget commission said the only way to keep the system solvent is to increase contributions and reduce benefits for the well off and require middle-income earners to work later in life.[ix]

Good luck with that one, as the baby boomers start to retire in the expectation that the state will succour them. The elderly are least likely of all Americans to live in poverty thanks to Social Security and Medicare programs the taxes of younger workers pay for.[x]

Perry is right to point to the problem. But, while the policy literate accept he has a point, the argument will not work with voters, whatever their persuasion  – including Tea Party types who, while hooting for tax cuts and hollering for deficit reductions, like social security the way it is.[xi]

Policy reform will take a lot of explanation and very little point scoring.

Certainly “there is a hunger among top Republicans for someone to tell tough truths, especially on entitlement reform.” [xii] But talking truth to the electorate’s power requires everybody speaking off the same script, or at least not ganging up on anybody game to put ideas on the agenda.

As Romney gleefully points out: “If we nominate someone who the Democrats could correctly characterize as being against Social Security we would be obliterated as a party”.[xiii]

So, to keep the pie fight in the Republican three-rings, the man from Massachusetts will try to wipe out Perry first.

This is good primary politics because it all but ensures that sooner or later, as the pressure of the primaries increases, Governor Perry will stop presenting his political bottom for opponents to kick.

This is a bad general election strategy because the governor has ideas which will attract all sorts of electors. For example, with a four year degree costing an in-state student at a public university around US$40,000 in tuition, Perry says people should only have pay $10,000 all up for a first rate BA.[xiv]

Attacking Perry over social security in ways which will discourage him from floating new proposals takes the Republicans back to the bad product marketing the GOP delivered in 2008.

And it was very bad marketing indeed. Sure the global financial crisis and George Bush’s unpopularity made the election of a Republican all but impossible. John McCain’s incoherence on the economy and Sarah Palin’s presence did not help either. And, as Barack Obama’s team tells the world, they ran an excellent campaign.

But GOP primary candidates who seem to have stood for nothing other than their own ambition did not help by trying to market their way to the nomination. The paucity of policy and the primacy of retail politics as Republicans (and Democrat also-rans) played to the base is made clear in a postmortem on the campaign. [xv]

Thus Senator McCain’s manager explained how he positioned the candidate not to win votes on the basis of his ideas but by eroding opponents’ bases, Rudy Giuliani on the left, Governor Romney and Mike Huckabee on the right:

It was just a game of being able to cross-pressure each person on the other end of their ideological base. When people chose not to play in certain states, it opened up those features for us. When Rudy didn’t go to South Carolina, boom, all of a sudden our left flank is wide open. That’s like 10 per cent more vote than we would have gotten in South Carolina. When Mitt decided not to go to South Carolina, that opened up our right flank. It didn’t help Huckabee as much as it helped us. When you drew a circle around the Huckabee and Giuliani campaigns, movement along our right and left flanks is what really defined us as a candidate. [xvi]

Defining a brand by positioning it in between competitors is no way to build sales, if only because the market will have no idea what the product actually stands for. And if you think consumer branding has nothing to do with politics read what Sheryl Cohen said about selling Senator Christopher Dodd (admittedly a Democrat) in 2008:

When you are a new cereal trying to introduce against better shelf space and they have better marketing and funds to do that, and the best salespeople want to go and work for Kelloggs and Post, you have challenges. You were reduced to what I call the taste testings in the supermarket, which was retail politics on the ground. So for candidates who didn’t have the press coverage or the money or the organisation, you still took your shot. I would criticize ourselves. At the end of the day, our product wasn’t marketed different enough and better enough. [xvii]

Basically because Senator Dodd did not have enough ideas to make him a credible candidate.

Of course the laws of marketing apply to politics, especially the foundation ones that dictate that consumers purchase products they understand. It does not matter how a candidate is packaged to look different to an opponent, what matters is that people understand what he or she does and why it will help them. In politics ideas are the attributes that define a product and policies are the benefits that voters base purchase decisions on.

The challenge for Governor Perry is to stick to his own brand values and to sell them as best he can. The challenge for his opponents is to out-think and out-communicate him. If none of them do President Obama will win in 2012, despite his woeful record – if only because enough voters know what he would like to do.

It’s early days, but on the basis of last week it looks like the Republicans are shaping up for a battle of the blands.

[i] Barack Obama, “Address by the President to joint session of Congress,” September 8 @ recovered on September 10

[ii] GOP 2012 Convention, “FAQs” @ recovered on September 10

[iii] Tim and Mary Pawlenty, “It was a great honour to run for president,” @ recovered on September 10

[iv] Trip Gabriel and Michael D Shear, “Loss of two top aides raises questions about Bachmann campaign,” New York Times, September 6 recovered on September 10

[v] Maggie Haberman, “President of Tea Party America,” Politico, September 5 recovered on September 10

[vi] Alexander Burns, “Rick Perry under fire in debate debut,” Politico September 7 recovered on September 10

[vii] Maggie Haberman, “ ‘You can’t say that to people’ ” Politico, September 7 @ recovered on September 10

[viii] The West Wing Episode Guide, Season Five Episode 12, “Slow News Day,” @ recovered on September 10

[ix] The National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, “The Moment of Truth” (December 2010) 49 @ recovered on September 10

[x] Congressional Budget Office, Social security: a primer (2001) 39 recovered on September 10

[xi] Neil King jnr and Scott Greenberg, “Poll shows budget-cuts dilemma,” The Wall Street Journal March 3 2011 @ recovered on September 2011

[xii] Carl J Kelm, “Perry the pinata” The Wall Street Journal, September 9 recovered on September 11

[xiii] Jonathan Martin and Manu Janu, “Rick Perry’s ‘ponzi scheme’ remarks cause Republican divide,” Politico, September 8 recovered on September 10

[xiv] College Board, “What it costs to go to college,” (nd) @ recovered on September 11, Anthony P Carnevale, “Rick Perry’s plan: $10,000 for a BA – just a start,” New York Times, September 6 @

[xv] The Institute of Politics, John F Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University, Campaign for president: The managers look at 2008 (Lanham Md 2009)

[xvi] Institute of Politics, op cit 149

[xvii] Ibid