The GOP’s tarnished brand: Chickens come home to roost

Like the big three automakers of thirty years ago, GOP campaign messaging has pursued short-term political advantage at the expense of Republicans’ long-term reputation for quality. They now have a problem.

Noam Scheiber and David Weigel traded some posts regarding why Romney strategist Stuart Stevens has encountered unexpected backlash–and not only from liberals–as he tries the standard GOP maneuvers on welfare policy, deceptively-cut Obama videos, and other matters.  They each made good points. Yet both underplayed the elephant in the room in this whole matter.

Here’s the play-by-play between Noam and David:

Scheiber writes:

[S]omewhere between the Florida recount and John Kerry’s swift-boating, a whole liberal industrial complex—cable channels like MSNBC, watch dogs like Media Matters for America, blog partisans like Daily Kos—began hacking away at the artifice. It has left Romney, already less believable in the just-folks role, badly exposed.

Stevens’s indifference to this shift—and to the partisan bloodlust that fuels it—helps explain how the campaign was caught flat-footed by allegations that Romney hadn’t severed his ties to Bain Capital until 2002, three years after he’d initially claimed. “The headline story above the fold in The [Boston] Globe: ‘ROMNEY STAYED LONGER AT BAIN’ … is totally, totally misleading,” one Romney adviser complained to me. “Maybe the newspaper’s got an angle because of political bias or because it sells copies—who knows what?” But the Bain story didn’t reflect the sudden vindictiveness of the mainstream media. It reflected the holy-war relentlessness of the left. As the Globe later acknowledged, the story was initially driven by enterprising bloggers at the liberal websites Talking Points Memo and Mother Jones.

David Weigel partially dissents from this diagnosis:

Absolutely, the liberal media is stronger and more influential than it was in 2000. But you can draw a venn diagram between strictly left-wing media and mainstream political reporting, and in the intersection, you will find “explanatory, fact-checking reporting,” enabled by the endless archives and space of the Internet. And it’s this stuff, not the left-wing character assassination, that has really upended Stevens-ism….

Weigel also argues that the press is now

[less] easily distracted by meaningless crap and spin. In 2012, there’s an army of truth-monitors ready to hit the [WTF] button every time a candidate makes an odd and misleading policy claim — like Romney and welfare, to pick an example from today. The “on-the-other-hand” reporting of 2000 no longer drives the coverage.

Scheiber amplifies his arguments in How Bush v. Gore Killed the Romney Campaign.” He notes the broad universe of liberal journalists such as Ezra Klein, Jonathan Cohn, and others who are available to credibly and quickly rebut GOP talking points and stories.

Weigel and Scheiber are both right, as far as they go. Yet they neglect one other matter: The GOP’s steady tarnishing of its own brand.

Republican political operatives have earned an impressive reputation for dishonesty and social intolerance. In my adult lifetime, reporters and many ordinary people have come to associate Republican political campaigns with rhetorical tropes that have sometimes proved expedient, but that have not worn well outside the hermetically sealed environment of FOX news and the Wall Street Journal editorial page. The list of such things is pretty long: The Laffer curve, Willy Horton, death panels, “You lie!” birtherism, charges that liberals support abortion to knock off the intellectually disabled.

I believe reporters and others have grown impatient with simple technical shoddiness. Republican candidates and office-holders offer sweeping sales pitches for dubious policies unsupported by accompanying critical details. How many times have Republicans presented regressive tax plans whose only concrete details concern tax cuts to the wealthy, and whose claims to deficit reduction don’t seem to add up? There is no real conservative counterpart to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, and it shows.

Many within the GOP have made careers out of attacking the Congressional Budget Office, the Office of Technology Assessment, various lesser-known agencies that perform policy analysis concerning the environment, medical care, and public health. Discomfiting numbers of Republican candidates express skepticism regarding global warming. From a wholly strategic perspective, such anti-scientism is quite damaging within the educated public, not to mention among media and policy elites.

Legitimate critiques can certainly be offered of President Obama’s health reform. Many of these critiques lose credibility when prominent critics of health reform say so many other wild things. It’s bad enough that Michelle Bachmann, Sarah Palin, and Betsy McCaughey were out front, on the issue of death panels; while Dick Morris was saying obviously false things about health reform and undocumented immigrants. It’s worse when more mainstream Republicans repeat such assertions, and people notice.

Just this week, the Romney campaign released a white paper by Glenn Hubbard, Greg Mankiw, John Taylor, and Kevin Hassett in support of “The Romney Program for Economic Recovery, Growth, and Jobs.” These are four accomplished and respected economists. Yet within days the Washington Post’s Ezra Klein easily dismantled their work. Klein employed the fiendish device of contacting the independent economic experts whose work was cited by Hubbard, Mankiw, Taylor, and Hassett. As Klein reports:

In every case, they responded with a polite version of Marshall McLuhan’s famous riposte. The Romney campaign, they said, knows little of their work. Or of their policy proposals.

Ezra’s a terrific policy journalist. And campaign documents are not exactly working papers at the National Bureau of Economic Research. Still, this was way too easy.

Like the big three automakers of thirty years ago, the GOP pursued short-term profits at the expense of its long-term reputation for quality. This has become a real liability when Mitt Romney requests the benefit of the doubt regarding an incompletely-specified tax plan, or a 30-second commercial that isn’t quite honest regarding Obama’s alleged plans to gut welfare reform.

That political market reaction is long overdue. It’s not as important as many other things. But I think it will hurt the GOP, and it will linger. It certainly should.

Author: Harold Pollack

Harold Pollack is Helen Ross Professor of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago. He has served on three expert committees of the National Academies of Science. His recent research appears in such journals as Addiction, Journal of the American Medical Association, and American Journal of Public Health. He writes regularly on HIV prevention, crime and drug policy, health reform, and disability policy for American Prospect, tnr.com, and other news outlets. His essay, "Lessons from an Emergency Room Nightmare" was selected for the collection The Best American Medical Writing, 2009. He recently participated, with zero critical acclaim, in the University of Chicago's annual Latke-Hamentaschen debate.

12 thoughts on “The GOP’s tarnished brand: Chickens come home to roost”

  1. My theory, which is related to yours, is that the Republican Party has run out of ideas.

    I don’t mean this to trash conservativism. Unlike a lot of liberals, I think that conservativism is a fundamentally decent impulse (we have a lot to learn from the past and tradition, change can be costly and lead to unintended consequences, sometimes it’s better not to risk what we already have for something new and untested, etc.) and conservatives have a legitimate role to play in policy debates.

    But I don’t think the conservative movement these days is playing that role. Instead, they are sticking with discredited and monolithic ideas (such as advocating tax cuts for the rich as the solution for every problem), denying problems exist (global warming, most obviously, now, but also the deficit during every Republican administration, the Iraq War for several years, etc.), and actually repudiating ideas that were created by Republican policy shops and think tanks as alternatives to big government liberalism (Romneycare, cap and trade).

    The weird thing is I think this is really bad for the country. There needs to be a check on liberalism. There needs to be people coming up with ideas for using the market to solve problems. Conservatives are not playing this role, because they have become too ideologically sclerotic.

    And this plays itself out in the media. Imagine, for instance, if you are someone like Tom Friedman. He’s not a guy I really respect that much, but he’s certainly a typical big-time MSM player. He’s generally center-left but wants to be fair to conservatives, he wants to be bipartisan and evenhanded, and indeed he can tick liberals off with that tendency. But what does he get from Republicans? Global warming denial, a refusal to do deficit reduction with any taxes, and a general disinterest in any sort of policy solutions to major problems. Do that often enough and for a long enough time, and even a guy like Friedman will throw up his hands and say “why am I continuing to listen to these people?”.

    As long as the right is out there with ideas and policy proposals and attempts at solving major problems, the media is going to give them the “evenhanded” treatment even if it means elevating bad ideas as the equal of good ones and all the other things liberals complain about. But if the right is offering nothing at all on that score, at some point the media is going to give up trying to be fair to them. I think there are signs that this is starting to happen.

    1. You must know of a cab driver that Friedman talked to that didn’t make an op-Ed, or something. I see no evidence of a change there.

      That aside, yes, the Republicans have been out of ideas for some time. At least since Bush the Lesser was elected. It takes an excruciating period of time for conventional wisdom to catch up to this, but it does.

      Perhaps a strained analogy. I like camping in remote places. I have gear that I like, and have used for a long time on both hike in, week long trips and (different gear) desert camping with crazy, drug-addled artists. I did a different sort of camping a few years back, cold-climate, ~40km hike in. Not being an idiot, I adjusted several things, got some new gear, retook my emergency first-aid classes, etc. My mistake was I used the same backpack that served me so well in other, shorter hikes. I won’t go in to what that did to me, but needless to say, when the terrain changes, so must one’s approach to it.

      I don’t think the Republicans have learned that yet.

  2. A fine post as far as it goes, but what worries me is that this is almost precisely the same type of “Republicans are doomed in the long run, which has finally arrived!” rhetoric from 2008. Perhaps there are only so many ways to re-package crud, but I’m not absolutely sure we’ve reached that nadir yet.

    1. I see what you’re saying there – the notion popular in 2008 that the Republicans would inevitably continue to lose unless they changed direction was sadly disproved in 2010, or at least proven premature – but while this might be short-term thinking on my part I’d hardly complain if in 2012 the Republicans did exactly as well as they did in 2008.

  3. This is so optimistic. I’ll note that Bush v. Gore didn’t seem to influence how the media covered the 2004 or 2008 elections in terms of calling out blatant Republican lies, and the internet as a fact-checking resource has been around for a while. I have a different theory: the media doesn’t like Romney. They are just as childish and pathetic now as when they called Gore out as a nerd, swooned over Bush’s package, and loved McCain’s maverickness. Romney is just an unpleasant human being.

  4. Have to agree with everybody to a certain extent, but mostly with Lars. It really seems like almost everybody who’s had any real contact with romney feels creeped out somehow. For people my age maybe it starts with the way he looks and moves so much like Herman Munster, but there really seems to be plenty of reason for it beyond that.

    But also we shouldn’t lose sight of the prime directive of media coverage, which is that they begin as stenographers. Someone with some “official” position has to be saying something in order for them to notice it and report it. Ezra is smart and articulate but he was that before he started blogging for the Post; the institution makes him respectable for the other media types. Maddow ditto because of MSNBC. The self-parodying vapidity of republican talking points makes media types more receptive to the other side of “he-said she-said” but the other side has to be visible in an institutional wrapper they can recognize.

    (As an aside, if I were running an unaffiliated Obama super-PAC, I’d seriously consider making spots that lip-synch romney’s voice with clips from The Munsters, and running them in early October. What comeback could they have?)

  5. I think this post is completely delusional. Where are the working-stiff journalists asking the tough questions to Romney and all the Fox-based idiot politicians? There is no trace of them. There are a handful of establishment Democrats read only by the converted, saying things that are a delight to hear (e.g. the response to the economic program). But in the trenches? Out past the liberal coasts, out there in Jesusland? Faint hope. I think Lars is dead on: Democrats love to delude themselves that the country may be a smidgen rational yet and there may be hope, but the loonies still rule so much of the land… and the airwaves that many voters listen to. I’m the first to wish that Harold were right, but I see no sign that his evidence has depth or breadth. Good luck in November!

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