All this talk about the need for a GOP “rebranding” sounds a bit funny when you reflect on the origin of the word “brand.” Per Merriam-Webster, it dates back to around the twelfth century (so long ago that Popes were still resigning their commissions) and comes from the Old English bærnan, meaning to burn or torch. For nigh a millennium, the dominant sense of “brand” was probably “a mark made by burning with a hot iron to designate ownership” of, say, livestock. Or, more darkly still, “a mark put on criminals with a hot iron; a mark of disgrace.” Then dawned the Mad Men era, neutralizing and reappropriating the literal meaning for figurative purposes. (Nobody talks about Apple Inc.’s iconic “mark of disgrace.”)
But one semantic feature that “brand” retained in the interval is its sense of permanence. The interaction of red-hot iron with epidermis tends to leave a lasting impression — physical and psychological — on the brandee, and it’s worth thinking about this when Eric Cantor gives a speech about Republicans’ needing to project policies that “make life work,” or David Brooks calls for a “Second GOP” of moderate Republicans to soft-sell coastal suburbanites. New vocabularies and some show candidates are nice, and might improve the GOP’s performance around the margins, but they are not by themselves going to dramatically change the dynamics. Brooks himself concedes that the Republican party in its current incarnation is not maneuverable enough to turn on a dime, which is why he advocates stapling a kind of de novo adjunct to it.
Still, the fact remains that brands — like all third-degree burns — fade slowly. (Consider that in 1936, Democratic newspapers were reminding Republican-leaning African-American readers that “Abraham Lincoln is not a candidate in the presidential election.”) This is why I doubt much will come of these misnamed rebranding efforts in the near term. There is simply too much scar tissue constricting the movement of the party. Here are five examples.
Compromise is a vector
In physics, some measurable quantities, such as speed, are scalars, expressible in terms of magnitude alone. Others, like velocity, are vectors, which have both a magnitude and a direction. So “500 miles per hour” is a scalar, but “500 miles per hour, heading south-by-southwest” is a vector. The confusion between scalars and vectors explains just about every clash between the Republican and Democratic parties in their current forms.
When Democrats protest — as the president did in his recent New Republic interview, and a thousand other times — that Democrats are more willing to “compromise” than Republicans, he is sort of right. He is sort of right because Democrats tend to assume that the direction component of a given policy vector is fixed — every maneuver sets a course toward more government, and “compromise” just means quibbling over speed.
This is why in Washington, the solution to a problem like health care is assumed from the get-go to entail more intervention, not less, and why a “spending cut” usually means a mere slowing of the growth of expenditures that are nevertheless vectored out toward infinity. By contrast, the current Republican party is more or less defined by its desire to have both components of the vector on the table in any given policy debate.
This is the essence of the party, not some accidental feature that can be buffed out or covered up. Conceding the direction part of the vector might make Republicans more popular with certain demographics or in certain locales, but it would also make them, as it were, pointless. To stretch the physics metaphor to its breaking point, it would make American politics one-dimensional. This is the deep truth that, e.g., Bobby Jindal is getting at when he warns that “America already has one liberal party; she doesn’t need another.”
The Granularity of the House
This overarching, almost Manichean dynamic between the Forces of More and the Forces of Less requires something like the current Republican party to exist. In other words, it means that even if there weren’t the current GOP, you’d have to invent it. Lest you think this is a wholly abstract argument, consider how this dynamic plays out on the ground. Namely, in the House of Representatives. When we pundits and operatives make holistic arguments about what “the party” needs to do, we tend to forget that the provincial congressman is still more or less the atomic unit of Washington, D.C. Transforming the Republican party (or the Democratic party, for that matter) thus means transforming (or replacing) a couple hundred former zoning-board members in safe seats, who combined have a total of zero incentive to listen to what David Brooks or Matt Lewis has to say about the national party. The granularity of the House, along with a healthy dose of gerrymandering that will subsidize Republican majorities for the next decade, means that there are precious few levers that would-be rebranders can pull that will make a difference at the macro level.
We’ve all played Jenga: You start with a solid tower made out of latticed layers of wooden blocks, then take turns removing pieces from the base and balancing them atop the increasingly ungainly structure until the whole thing topples over — or the pizza bagels are ready. Anyway, building majority coalitions is a lot like this. To a certain extent, both the Republican and the Democratic coalitions are ungainly and irrational constructs (Ted Nugent and Mitt Romney? Jesse Jackson and Barney Frank?). But current conditions — the recession and the prospects of a slow-growth, high-unemployment “new normal” — give Democrats an advantage in keeping their cats herded.
In a sentence, the poorest Democrats (who also tend to be the most socially conservative) are locked into the coalition out of sheer material fear, giving wealthier, socially progressive Democrats a freer hand to pursue their cultural projects. The Republicans got the bum end. As in 1932 and 1936, they failed to convince the financially insecure middle of the country that the government is worse suited to help them than they are to help themselves. This gives them little room to maneuver on cultural issues such as gay marriage, or issues such as immigration, which cuts across the cultural/economic divide.
Many on the Right argue, plausibly, that a GOP softening on gay marriage might bring on board a few hundred thousand fiscally conservative small-L libertarians, but it would also alienate a couple dozen million evangelicals. Mutatis mutandis, they say, a pro-amnesty GOP might make marginal gains with those elusive “socially conservative” Latinos, but only by forsaking the white working class. These realities would leave the GOP little margin for error in this game of Demographic Jenga under normal conditions. But to tweak your base when the middle of the country is voting like Marx was right is an especially high-risk, low-reward stratagem.
The Defense Straitjacket
Okay, so if a leftward cultural pivot is a non-starter, what about monkeying with the other traditional source of Republican strength, national security? Here again the Democratic coalition’s moral flexibility and willingness to strategically subvert lesser progressive goals in order to achieve greater ones has snookered Republicans. Just as Senator John F. Kennedy got to the right of Republicans on national defense by warning of a “missile gap” with the Soviets, President Obama is determined to drone-down so many terrorists in so many countries that that Republicans will be too busy choking on smoke to complain about anything else.
Consider that the biggest blow Republicans have been able to land on defense concerned the killing of an ambassador in Libya, a country where the president launched a brushfire war of choice with Republican acquiescence. Meanwhile, his party is newly enamored of the war on terror and silent on the civil-liberties concerns that animated it in the Bush years, and the corpse of a single dead terrorist carries so much symbolic heft that the president might have been cheered for scuttling the USS Carl Vinson, so long as Osama Bin Laden went down with it. How, in this climate, can the Republicans retool their national-security profile and pick off marginal voters? There is some hope that their allowing sequestration to go through could — presuming it is done wisely — bring some foreign-policy paleocons, realists, and libertarians in from the cold. But for the reasons stated above, there is just as much reason to suspect it will disgruntle hawks even more.
The fight for the American People is still within the margin of error
So is the GOP finished? Hardly. In fact, the biggest thing constraining the party’s effort to fundamentally rebrand itself might just be that it doesn’t need to. We are two years removed from a historically good midterm for Republicans, and two years out from another midterm that, given present conditions, could prove very good as well. Meanwhile, the reelection of the president was narrower than his election, and while there is widespread disagreement about the apportionment of blame for Mitt Romney’s loss, most believe it was at least partly technical. Unlike core beliefs, campaign modalities and technologies are something the party can change — and quickly. Throw in a much stronger crop of presidential hopefuls and, even controlling for the Hillary Contingency, the Republicans’ national prospects are far from bleak in the near term.
Now, in the long term, they may well be bleak, for all sorts of reasons. But that’s a different animal. The Republican and Democratic parties of 2053 might be as different from their current versions as their current versions are from the Republican and Democratic parties of 1933. That won’t be up to Eric Cantor or David Brooks, but to forces bigger than any party leader or PR strategy.
— Daniel Foster is news editor of NRO.