For years, I’ve had conversations with friends in politics that all conclude with something like this: “We’re never going to fix the Republican brand until we get our leadership to start recognizing that what a brand is, and that candidates need to sell themselves not by looking at other candidates, but by looking at Nike.”
Yesterday, Barack Obama’s audacious brand continues to triumph. Marketed with dazzling skill to the high end consumer and the conformist college-age Millennial, it enables Obama to make a much broader appeal as a unifying force, in spite of his narrow policy views. He’s the iPhone of politics, sleek, sexy, and pop culture, and even as only 2.5 percent of the market, last year, everyone – even the nonpolitical – know the brand instantly. As Patrick Ruffini noted in his own analysis of Obama: The Brand – “The end result is that great brands are fungible. They can be all things to all people. The branding approach liberates Obama to be the candidate of the MoveOn wing and of national unity. That’s not a criticism. It is a compliment.”
Last night, though, we also started to see a few chinks in this HopeChangeObama brand. See, while the benefits of marketing a candidate like anything in a box are enormous, it’s a dangerous game to play.
Consumer brands are more recognizable, they are more unifying, and they have a broader appeal. But when the American people are increasingly voting based on a desire for authenticity, it still matters what’s actually inside the box you’re selling. If you promise people tea and cake, and it turns out to be death, well, they’re not exactly going to be saying omg ponies! And if your brand is a new entry into the marketplace, and you don’t have a lot of built-up goodwill and gravitas, well, you can be rebranded by your opponents before you know it.
The signs that the Big Rock Candy Mountain candidate gave off last night were not the signs of a brand that has staying power. The Clinton campaign has essentially goaded him into giving longer, more typically political speeches – laundry lists of programs and bureaucratic expansions that make him sound like a typical politician, not a candidate of HopeChange. It leads to scenes like this, the sort of promises that can win you a Democratic primary in Wisconsin hands down, but will come back to bite you in a general election:
“We can restore a sense of economic fairness in this country. I believe in capitalism, but when you’ve got CEOs making more in 10 minutes than ordinary Americans make in a year, that’s not right. I want a $10 billion package to prevent foreclosures, and a mortgage deduction for those who don’t itemize.”
“We shouldn’t raise the minimum wage every 10 years, we should raise it every year, to keep up with inflation. If you work in this country, you should not be poor.”
As Thomas put it: “Those folks on the other side attack the ‘failed policies of the last eight years.’ As a cure, they offer the failed policies of the last century.” The Obamanation doesn’t seem to recognize this yet, but the promises made now just aren’t going to play the same way in a general election.
Robert Samuelson’s column on the “Obama Delusion” in the Post is getting a lot of linkage today, and it deserves it; while naturally inclined to like Obama, he still sees a broad distance between brand and reality (emphasis mine):
Political candidates routinely indulge in exaggeration, pandering, inconsistency and self-serving obscuration. Clinton and McCain do. The reason for holding Obama to a higher standard is that it’s his standard and also his campaign’s central theme. He has run on the vague promise of “change,” but on issue after issue — immigration, the economy, global warming — he has offered boilerplate policies that evade the underlying causes of the stalemates. These issues remain contentious because they involve real conflicts or differences of opinion.
The contrast between his broad rhetoric and his narrow agenda is stark, and yet the media — preoccupied with the political “horse race” — have treated his invocation of “change” as a serious idea rather than a shallow campaign slogan. He seems to have hypnotized much of the media and the public with his eloquence and the symbolism of his life story. The result is a mass delusion that Obama is forthrightly engaging the nation’s major problems when, so far, he isn’t.
If you think that’s the sort of thing that McCain – Mr. Straight Talk, an old brand, a slow brand, but one built on decades of action to back it up – isn’t going to be able to peel back in a drawn out general, well, you’re fooling yourself. But even if he has to do it without the help of the MSM, without further investigation of what Obama really offers beneath all that packaging, it can be done. As Jennifer Rubin notes:
Obama showed a little leg last night and to the relief of the McCain camp showed himself to be a rather ordinary liberal. It sounds trite to recite the litany, but the list of his policy proposals was trite: tax the rich, roll back trade agreements, spend more money, do something (I couldn’t tell what) about lobbyists, and give everyone in America an affordable college education (you might get some Republican takers if you started taxing educational institutions with billion dollar endowments), all while providing universal healthcare. On foreign policy you will find no Joe Biden realism, let alone any Scoop Jackson muscular defense strategy. (He did seem rather enthusiastic about using funds we will save from retreating from Iraq to build roads and provide broadband service in Houston, though.)
This is good news for McCain on two fronts. First, it helps solve, if not totally obliterate, his problem with rallying the base. If conservatives cannot get revved up to oppose a platform that looks like something Ted Kennedy cooked up (come to think of it…) then nothing will rally them. Second, this will enhance McCain’s ability to snag independents. (When you throw in Obama’s positions on everything from partial birth abortion to gun control the task becomes that much easier.)
McCain will, of course, need to fight through the throngs of media boosters and shout over the “Yes, we can” chants. But if the only thing innovative about Obama is stylistic, then McCain may not be such a long shot after all. (He can only hope Obama gives a rambling, self-indulgent mess of a speech after every victory between now and June.)
There’s a meme that’s emerged over the past few months that Obama is – despite resting in age between the runoff of the Baby Boom and the first Gen Xers – the first true candidate of the Millennial generation. The label fits, in large part: Millennials are a responsible bunch, but they still have a mess of conflicts – they say they hate materialism yet spend scads of money, they’re socially conscious but don’t have long memories, and they’re the most secular and the most evangelical generation on record at the same time. Their personal lives are extremely conservative: they drink and use drugs at much lower rates than any generation since the 1950s, and they share those straitlaced conservative attitudes toward sex (the abstinence figures and pregnancy rates are just astounding, and a plurality of them are pro-life), but they’re solidly on the left on the environment and the size of government. They’re optimists, trusting of most authority, and passionate about civic duty.
Yet there’s something else here, too, something that the left should realize is a bigger concern than the political horserace of the moment – this voting bloc is massive, young, and fickle. They’ll turn on a dime after seeing some paparazzi photos and a segment on TMZ. One day you’re Hannah Montana, the next you’re Britney Spears. Just imagine how they would’ve reacted to Dukakis in the tank, with 6 million hits on YouTube, and you get the idea.
Be warned, lefties. Empty promises may sway the Millennials for this election, but putting all your audacious hopes of Great Society Redux in one basket with Obama must have the intended result: once you get the candidate out of the box, regardless of how good the branding is, it still has to work. The past two Democrat administrations have been trainwrecks, and now you’re trusting a guy with no executive experience and a team of political has-beens to achieve glorious HopeChange with a bar set in the stratosphere.
When it comes to the future of conservatism, perhaps the best result for this election and for our future would be the Old Man beating the Kid. The lesson for the left: Even when you packaged it with flowers and puppies and a bright pink bow, you still couldn’t sell McGovernism to the American people. But even if Obama wins, he has to deliver – and it now appears like, after all that sturm und drung, all he’s bringing to the table is a bunch of old failed ideas. The Millennials are too young to remember the welfare state – but they’ll remember what happens next.