The GOP Needs To Change
Posted in the Hayti Forum
#1 Mar 27, 2013
Since coming up short in the November elections, its fifth popular-vote loss in the last six presidential elections, the Republican Party has been engaged in an anguished discussion of what went wrong, and what needs to change.
The latest example is the 100-page Growth and Opportunity Project (GOP, get it?) report that the Republican National Committee released last week. According to the RNC, "the Republican Party needs to stop talking to itself," and figure out how to be more appealing to minorities, the young, and women. It also needs to get with this digital stuff (the biggest part of the report is devoted to campaign mechanics, especially the GOP disadvantage in use of data, social media, and other digital tools) and figure out how to use billionaire donors to its advantage rather than letting them hijack the party's agenda.
For somebody who came of voting age in the 1980s, this is all quite disorienting. I always thought self-flagellation was a Democratic thing. But times change, and the Republicans now are in a situation a lot like the Democrats then — still holding on to an advantage in statehouses and in the House of Representatives, but facing ever-stiffer headwinds at the national level.
So what should the Republicans do about it? A key word in much of the discussion so far has been "rebranding." (The RNC report uses the word "brand" five times and "rebranding" twice.) If only the party didn't come across as so old and so angry and so white, the reasoning goes, it'd get more votes. This explains the sudden bursts of enthusiasm for the likes of Florida Senator Marco Rubio and — over the past few weeks — Maryland neurosurgeon Benjamin Carson.
It could well be that a charismatic candidate who appealed to minorities, made better use of campaign technology, and embraced some modest policy changes (mainly on immigration and gay marriage) could sweep Republicans back into the White House. It's not like Obama's popular-vote majority was that overwhelming, and the current Democratic mix of affluent professionals, minorities, unionized workers, and the young isn't exactly a natural coalition.
But I think the Republicans are going about this all wrong. The party has been selling pretty much the same product for more than three decades now, while market conditions have changed. So far the self-examination has focused chiefly on its sales techniques; as detailed in the RNC report and Robert Draper's New York Times Magazine cover story last month on young Republican operatives, GOP pollsters have been convening lots of focus groups in which people tell them the party comes across as old, angry, and out of touch. What most Republican leaders don't seem to have worked very hard at yet is figuring out what voters outside the GOP base need and want.
It's like the flailing companies in Ted Levitt's classic HBR article "Marketing Myopia" that err by thinking their job is to sell a product rather than satisfy a customer need. And because all of us at HBR have A.G. Lafley and Roger L. Martin's Playing to Win on the brain these days, I also can't help but contrast the Republican reaction so far to what Lafley's Procter & Gamble did to revive the skin-care brand Olay.
Oil of Olay was a bit like today's GOP — its customers were aging and dying off, and younger women didn't even really consider buying it. So P&G decided to target a different demographic, women from their mid-30s onward who were just beginning to notice signs of wear and tear on their skin, and reformulated the product using better, more expensive ingredients to fight "the seven signs of aging." After that came a rebranding (from Oil of Olay to Olay), and all sorts of smart marketing and pricing choices that led to a spectacular revival.
#2 Mar 27, 2013
I realize this is skin lotion we're talking about, not politics and policy. But the idea of starting by rethinking of what potential customers need, then building a strategy aimed at winning those customers over, has widespread application.
In their book Grand New Party, published a few months before Barack Obama's 2008 electoral triumph, young Republican thinkers Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam took just such a strategic approach to building a future Republican majority. The need they identified among the working-class "Sam's Club voters" they deemed crucial was for policies that battled the economic insecurity that bedevils more and more Americans. Among other things, they recommended shifts in the tax code to favor young families (a much-expanded child tax credit, for example), health-care reform that combined catastrophic coverage for all with the removal of a lot of the current incentives for overspending, and job-creating investments in alternative energy.
I don't know if this would actually be a winning strategy for the Republican Party (one conservative critic at the time called it "Sam's Club socialism"), but it is at least a strategy, and a forward-looking and hopeful one, that is not inconsistent with Republican tradition.
After the book came out, the financial crisis and subsequent Great Recession made the problem of economic insecurity much, much worse. Instead of embracing the Douthat-Salam policy solutions or even the basic notion that insecurity is a problem, Republicans on the national level mostly ran bellowing loudly in the opposite direction. They did this in large part because the Obama administration was trying to address these problems, and they figured that outright opposition was a better tactic than tinkering at the margins of President Obama's plans. As a result, I am hard-pressed to think of a single serious Republican legislative proposal at the national level over the past four years that addressed the problems of economic insecurity in a constructive way (yes, I'm sure somebody more wonkish and sympathetic than I will be able to identify a couple, but I think the basic point will stand).
The tone has changed a bit since the November election, with even hard-line House Majority Leader Eric Cantor backing a new "Making Life Work" initiative "to improve the lives of you and your family" and the expanded child-tax credit undergoing a revival. But so far it's just talk, and has yet to run the apostasy-punishing gauntlet of a Republican primary season.
The primaries are of course a big part of the Republicans' dilemma. If the people in charge of Oil of Olay had to be reelected by customers every two years, it would have been a lot harder for them to abandon those customers in search of new, more-profitable ones. And in a two-party system, the need to cobble together a majority adds a complexity to strategic choices that corporations selling products often don't face.
But without a strategic approach that starts with the wants and needs of potential voters — not with the current set of GOP policies — the party is doomed to drift.
#3 Mar 27, 2013
As the old song says, "you're gonna change or Im gonna leave". This is why the Tea Party formed and why many GOP voters are changing their tune. The GOP is not the "Grand Ol Party" it use to be.
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