Reflections on the GOP Rebranding Effort

by Robert Maynard

Here are some reflections on a hard copy document that I received, which deals with rebranding the GOP:

(I) The presentation starts out with comparing the offices held by the GOP after the 1988 election to those held after the 2012 election. Though accurate, it fails to mention the brief grass roots resurgence within the GOP during the 1998 and 2000 elections that ended up with the GOP in control of the Vermont House. Those were elections in which the distinctions between the GOP and the Democrats were VERY strongly made.

(II) The next page talks about how the National GOP has supposedly alienated Independents. The problem here is that Romney won the Independent vote in 2012, but lost the race when he could not turn out his base in a turn out election. There is also the matter of voter registration moving in the GOP’s favor following the 2010 election, as well as Independents. Exit polls on election day showed that:

Fifty-three percent of voters believed government is “doing too much” while 41% said government “should do more.”

Four years ago, these numbers were flipped, with 51% of Americans in 2008 saying government “should do more” while 43% said government is doing too much.

In other words, the climate for opposing big government was more ripe in 2012 than it was in 2008. The dynamics that drove the 2010 elections were still in place during the 2012 elections, but the GOP campaign failed to take advantage of this. According to a more recent Rasmussen poll: “62% Favor Across-the-Board Spending Cuts, But 57% Think They’re Unlikely.” Again, the climate is ripe to make the case for limiting the role of government, but the GOP leadership is not taking advantage of this opportunity. The problem with a focus on the problems the national GOP is having is that it insinuates that the Vermont GOP’s problems are mostly the result of the National GOP’s image, when a lot of our problems are of our own making.

(III) The next page presents “The Good News.” That is the fact that Jim Douglas still has a 56-70% popularity rating. While not surprising, it is hard to see how this translates into success in building the party. Yes, Jim Douglas is a decent and personally likeable person. The problem is that his personal likability did not translate into party building success during his time as the head of the party. He got elected in a three man race in 2002 after Howard Dean had stepped down. Given the legislative victories in 1998 and 2000 and the fact that Howard Dean had exited state politics, winning the Governor’s office in 2002 was something that most GOPers at the time expected. In fact, the talk leading up to the 2002 race was about adding to the House majority and taking the Senate. In the 2002 race, neither happened. Instead, much of what was gained in the down ticket races in 1998 and 2000 was lost. What was not lost in 2002 was lost in subsequent races until the GOP had virtually NO base and NO bench. All of this happened with a decent likable person as the face of the party. The lesson that should be learned here is that the party needs to be defined by its principles, not by the personalities leading it. Yes, it is important to have likeable people running the party, but that is no substitute for clear set of principles that distinguish the party. The latter is what was missing during the Jim Douglas years, and frankly, the years prior to the brief 1998 – 2000 election cycles. The trend in Vermont politics at the grass roots level has been moving in the direction of Democrats and Progressives for quite a while. The fact that the GOP can boast of several likable leaders does not change that fundamental trend at the grass roots level.

(IV) The next page, which contains a recommendation that the GOP stick to the basics of individual liberty, a free market economy, limited government, etc., is on solid grounds.

(V) The section on demeanor and attitude is useful. We can disagree with the left without being disagreeable. The recommendation that we distance ourself for the National GOP is still looking at them as the source of our problems, rather than looking in the mirror. Yes, Vermont is different and we need to craft a message that will work here but this focus on the National GOP prevents us from correcting our own faults.

(VI) The next several pages deal with certain personalities from the GOP’s past and is titled “Look Back to Move Forward.” The problem is that this section deals exclusively with personalities. Personalities come and go, but principles endure. I have already shown how the GOP squandered the grass roots foundation created in the “Take Back Vermont” election cycles of 1998 and 2000 during the Jim Douglas years, despite his personal popularity. If we really want to “Look Back to Move Forward,” we should look back to Vermont’s founding principles and look forward to how these principles are relevant to today’s Information Age. For a model of how to do that, we need look no further than our 2012 candidate for Governor, Randy Brock. In a piece spelling out his vision for a free market approach to health care reform, he included this jewel:

Vermonters have a long and proud tradition of independence, self-reliance and maintaining control over our own lives. That is the thread that joins today’s Vermont from its founding more than two hundred years ago. But we are living in a new century. Look around us: products and services are moving us even more toward a culture of personal responsibility in which we take charge of our lives and futures in a way never before achieved. From the adoption of new personal technologies (iPhones, Facebook, Google) to new personal services (Expedia, EBay), consumers are empowered on a personal and at the same time global scale. Extending that power to the individual has made every Vermonter smarter, more independent and more capable of managing complexity than ever. That is a tradition in which Vermonters want to control their own lives, make their own decisions, and not be bound by rules, bureaucracy, strictures and one-size-fits-all mandates from Montpelier.

If we really want to rebrand the GOP, that is how we do it .

Finally we get to the most problematic part of the rebranding presentation. That is the section on the “legacies” of the GOP personalities cited. Many of the items proudly cited as legacies that the GOP of today should hang its hat on involve proposals for more regulation and higher taxes. This comes in the same document, which argues that we need to focus on such basics as individual liberty, a free market economy, limited government, etc. With all do respect to those who came up with this, I cannot think of a greater example of intellectual schizophrenia. How on earth can we convince the public that we are the party of the aforementioned principles when we are touting a GOP legacy that most Democrats would be proud of. This is exactly the kind of proposal, which leads to charges from the GOP’s base that the party’s leadership is offering an agenda described as “Democrat Lite”. If we want our base to get out and help raise funds, volunteer time, etc., we need to offer a clear distinction between the parties. We can do this without coming off as disagreeable and we can present ourselves as the ones who are forward looking if we follow Randy Brock’s cue and point out that our heritage of individual liberty and voluntary associations is far better suited for the 21st Information Age than the top down, “Government Knows Best” approach of the left.

What is needed is to take another look at this “re-branding” effort. Besides the substance of the proposal in question, the whole process by which it is being considered is backwards. Our Platform Committee traveled around the state getting input from grass roots Republicans BEFORE creating the Vermont GOP Platform. That input determined the content of the Platform. Now we have two individuals touring the state getting input from Republicans AFTER a presentation has been created. In addition, it is not at all clear what the mechanism was by which these two individuals were commissioned to undertake this task. There is a clear process by which we come up with a Platform Committee and then a Platform. Why on earth are we not following a similar bottom up process of putting this messaging document together?