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USA: Republicans Labour To Revive An Old Brand

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By Nimal Fernando* | IDN-InDepth NewsAnalysis

MINNESOTA (IDN) - Rebranding is a daunting prospect in any commercial setting. When the process involves not a product or service, but a political party, daunting does not even begin to make a dent in expressing the exacting task at hand.

Republican Party faithfuls must be painfully aware of this as they take stock and move towards cementing a strategy to rebrand and revitalise the Grand Old Party (GOP) of the United States.

A cartoonist might depict the status quo in the form of a smallish tent sheltering two separate groups, one larger than the other. The smaller group will also be identified as a kind of party within the party, going by the name of Tea Party, but offering neither tea nor sympathy to any but its own.

To observers both at home and abroad, the GOP has been lurching towards this cul de sac for at least the past four years, in tandem with the election of the nation's first black president. Even as the Republicans spent the first Obama term trying every tactic they could to deny the president a second one, they were also busy cutting the ground from under any of their own even entertaining the idea of bipartisanship.

Just about the only thing both camps seem able to fervently agree on is that this is the greatest, most powerful nation in history, something that spokespersons at all levels are fond of mentioning. Something else GOP spokespersons, particularly media warriors and talking heads on Fox News like to point out, is also that other American virtue of exceptionalism.

Increasingly, what's become a head-scratcher for independents and America's well-wishers worldwide, is how the damaging gridlock in Washington squares off with American exceptionalism.

Some Republicans in Congress, who refuse to give an inch on any compromise aimed at addressing a looming fiscal crisis, however, will argue that all these developments, or lack thereof, are indicative of the robustness of American democracy.

Congressman Jason Chaffetz of Utah could be held out as a part that represents the whole. As the Associated Press reported recently, Chaffetz, one of many GOP lawmakers who stubbornly refuse to compromise with President Obama, could be damaging the republican brand. Still, as the AP report explained, Chaffetz represents rigid Republican districts whose constituents are staying the course in doing whatever it takes to stop President Obama's agenda.

Republican diehards are doing so even as the nation seems to be getting used to shooting itself in the foot. Obama offered an explanation for the impasse in an interview with The New Republic magazine in January, when he said: "The House Republican majority is made up mostly of members who are in sharply gerrymandered districts that are very safely Republican and may not feel compelled to pay attention to broad-based public opinion, because what they're really concerned about is the opinions of their specific Republican constituencies."

At the national level, however, a clear majority favours compromise, as a Pew poll in January showed. The poll found 36 percent of Republican voters in sync with 59 percent of Democrats and 53 percent of independents who could look favourably on a politician who compromises.

Changing demographics

The quandary for the GOP as it charts its course for next year's congressional elections and the presidential election in 2016, is that nearly all House Republicans come from districts that voted against President Obama last November. But even as the GOP retains its majority in the House with pockets of safe districts, the bigger prize of retaking the White House keeps becoming less likely in a national electorate driven by changing demographics.

This explains why the Republican National Committee plans to spend $10 million this year to send hundreds of party workers into Hispanic, black and Asian communities to promote its brand among voters who overwhelmingly supported Democrats in 2012.

Committee chairman Reince Priebus said on March 17 that he would be hiring new staffers to build the GOP among voters in the states to help his party ahead of the 2016 contest, already in its earliest stages.

That move was part of the recommendations included in a monthslong look at what went wrong in 2012. Priebus tapped a handful of respected party leaders to examine how the GOP could better talk with voters, raise money from donors and learn from Democrats' tactics. Priebus also asked the group to examine how they could work with independent groups such as super political action committees.

Exit polls indicated Obama carried female, black, Hispanic and Asian voting blocs. He also won among voters under the age of 45 and those who lived in mid-to large-sized cities. That spells troubles for the GOP in a nation that is increasingly diverse. The latest census data and polling from the Associated Press suggest non-Hispanic whites will lose their majority in the next generation, somewhere around the year 2043.

Some analysts have noted, however, that this push for a new brand image has been made harder because a politically savvy minority voting block is seeing through past GOP showcase moments such as the Republican National Convention, when the spotlight lingers on the party's minority politicians.

As President Obama's dominant showing among Hispanics and women highlighted, the GOP's chances of getting any traction, in the short-term, by front lining its Marco Rubios, Bobby Jindalls and Nikki Haleys appear to be lukewarm. Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindall, like former Secretary of State Colin Powell, has not endeared himself to the party's ultra-conservatives by calling a spade a spade in recent weeks, and making it harder for the GOP to partly cover up its white-male face.

While Powell, a hugely-respected African-American, referred to a "deep vein of intolerance" within the GOP, the up-and-coming Jindall, (like South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley, an Indian-American), was blunt in his assessment that "we must stop being the stupid party."

Echoing these sentiments was former Florida Governor Jeb Bush (younger brother of the 43rd president, seen as a possible third Bush in the White House). In his new book, "Immigration Wars: Forging an American Solution", Bush writes that the immigration debate holds serious consequences for the nation and the GOP, calling fellow Republicans "remarkably tone-deaf when it comes to courting Hispanic voters – to the extent they court them at all."

Arguably, these developments could do more harm to the GOP makeover by driving the party's hardliners even more into their corner. And only time will tell if enough Hispanics drop their guard and lend a collective ear to Cuban-American Marco Rubio, senator from Florida, already handed the mantle of Republican saviour by Time magazine.

A ploy

Some GOP analysts are pointing to a change of heart among Republican representatives on social issues, such as giving same-sex couples the freedom to marry, as a positive sign that the party is returning to its core values. They say that Republicans increasingly recognise that the freedom to marry is consistent with the GOP's belief in limited government and individual freedom. To date, 206 Republican state legislators across the nation have stood up for the freedom to marry.

The latest example of Republicans taking a courageous stand is Senator Rob Portman of Ohio, a rising Republican star on the national stage. Announcing a few days ago that he has a gay son, Portman said he no longer could justify his opposition to same-sex marriage. This makes him the only sitting Republican senator to publicly support giving gays and lesbians the right to marry. He is also one of the most prominent members of the GOP to speak out on the issue so far.

The so-called larger-tent Republicans see the tide turning, in that conservative Republicans are no longer being intimidated by the single-issue crowd whose narrow agenda has made it harder for the GOP to appeal to the next generation.

The message to the fringe element seems to be: don't look for new enemies.

It is possible that along with such moderates, Republican-leaning independents, who look beyond the typical pocketbook and social issues, might conclude that an agenda dictated by the radical right could open the door wide, again, to a partial hijacking of policy by neocons as was seen in the George Bush era.

Still, if the mid-March meeting at CPAC (Conservative Political Action Conference) is anything to go by, the tail is hellbent on wagging the Republican dog. While an obvious 'inclusivist' star such as New Jersey Governor Chris Christie was not invited to the party, rubbing shoulders with the headliners was Donald Trump, who even some leading Republicans regard as a source of doubtful entertainment.

Given the level of suspicion of the GOP's intentions among minorities in general, the Republican rebranding itself could be viewed as a ploy to garner enough votes, without any genuine move to the centre. Which is why some Republicans are said to be already (privately) fearful of the 2014 congressional elections.

A devastating electoral setback is a real possibility, in that an electorate that has seen its experiment with a divided government stuck in a cul de sac, might hand over the House too, ultimately, to the man in the other house ... and ask Barack Obama to finish the job.

*Nimal Fernando is a freelance writer in the United States. [IDN-InDepthNews – March 22, 2013]

Photo: Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus | Credit: Gage Skidmore

2013 IDN-InDepthNews | Analysis That Matters

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