Don't believe all the talk about a major rebranding of the Republican Party. Because if there's a serious attempt at rebranding, it's off to a barely discernable start.
Today's Republican Party seems like The Coca Cola Company in its failed 1985 attempt to replace Classic Coke with "New Coke." For the last few years, Republicans have offered voters the New GOP, heavily flavored with tea and talk-show-style rhetorical bile. Many voters from growing demographic groups don't like that product. They yearn for Classic GOP, flavored with real, thoughtful, compassionate, traditional conservatism.
Sadly, GOP Classic won't return anytime soon. Despite Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal's plea that the GOP stop being the "stupid party," there are few signs that ideological groups such as CPAC, Congressional Republicans, right-wing media, and conservative bloggers want to thoughtfully discuss issues and offer substantive, achievable solutions.
To truly rebrand, the GOP must extricate itself from a talk radio political culture that glorifies and rewards confrontation, brinksmanship, snarkiness, over- the-top verbal demonization and division — and considers consensus oh, so 20th century, and compromise as something akin to treason.
Exit polls showed that in 2012, Obama won moderates by 15 points. A Third Way poll found that Obama won by building a coalition of liberals and moderates. Moderates are called "RINOS" in a GOP populated with RINO-hunting tea partiers. And the crime of Suspicion of Moderation was enough to keep New Jersey Gov. Chris "Mr. Home-State-Approval-Rating-74-Percent" Christie from being invited to CPAC because, as one CPAC member told a reporter, Christie has a "limited future" in the Republican Party.
Can this Republican Party really be expected to inch toward the center and offer a thoughtful alternative to the many, many moderate voters who don't really like the Democrats? Unlikely. Remember, for the past two decades, talk radio and ideological cable shows have played a key role in rallying conservatives; giving GOP voters talking points; influencing Republicans' attack-mode, bumper-sticker-ish political rhetoric; and keeping wavering partisans in line.
A successful talk show host must attract an audience, get it to return, then deliver that "narrowcasting" demographic to advertisers. Fiery, combative rhetoric helps. But a successful political party must aggregate interests to build a winning and governing coalition.
The goals of the conservative media and conservative politicians don't always mesh. And herein lies the GOP's problem.
The big shift began in 1992, four years after Rush Limbaugh launched a national radio show that was playful, funny, and often as critical of then-President George H.W. Bush as Democrats. So Bush invited Limbaugh to the White House. In The Candidate: What It Takes to Win — and Hold — the White House, political scientist Samuel L. Popkin writes:
Although conservative, Limbaugh had not been a wholehearted supporter of any candidate, nor had he ever invited — or needed— guests on his show. Roger Ailes courted Limbaugh and brought him to the White House for dinner with Bush and an overnight stay in the Lincoln bedroom. The charm worked; Limbaugh was a full-fledged Bush supporter from June on, welcoming both Bush and Quayle on his show that fall. [The Candidate]
Limbaugh rapidly became less funny and more partisan. He impacted elections and created the model for partisan talk radio. When Fox News debuted in 1996, it grafted talk radio onto news. Talk radio is today as important in keeping the 21st century's divisive incarnation of conservatism intact as Republicans redistricting in many states is in ensuring a Republican House and convincing House GOPers to reject compromise if they want to avoid right-wing primary challenges.
There are smidgeons of suggestions of Republicans moderating policies on gays, Latinos, and other groups, but little has changed when you look at the details. David Frum notes that Republicans were lied to in 2012 by the "conservative entertainment complex." Today, that echo chamber is still echoing strong. True, Dick Morris, the worst pundit since the time of Moses, has been exiled from Fox News, but little else has changed.
The latest deficit reduction plan that Rep. Paul Ryan rolled out last week shows how little Republicans learned from their thrashing last November. Really, it brings to mind one definition of insanity: Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.
The internal difficulties of Republican rebranding is seen when MSNBC's "Morning Joe" Scarborough pleads for his party to be more inclusive, and conservative talker Mark Levin then angrily attacks him and calls him "The Morning Shmo." Meanwhile, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul's talking filibuster has made him the Justin Bieber of libertarians. But Paul would do utterly nothing to win over the emerging demographic groups the GOP needs to woo.
So what can we expect? Some slight tempering of official rhetoric, maybe. But nothing more.
THE WEEK'S AUDIOPHILE PODCASTS: LISTEN SMARTER
- How academia's liberal bias is killing social science
- The Hobbit: A disappointing set of movies, but a worthy set of prequels
- Dick Cheney's America is an ugly place
- America is building a Sunni army in Iraq to take on the Islamic State
- How to be the most productive person in your office — and still get home by 5:30 p.m.
- How to make the ultimate grilled cheese
- The liberation of Barack Obama
- The age of miracles is over — even for the religious
- 43 TV shows to watch in 2014
- What the media gets wrong about Jeb Bush
Subscribe to the Week