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The Republican Leadership Deficit

Ryan Lizza profiled Rep. Eric Cantor, and described his assessment of GOP woes this way:

Since the 2012 elections, the Republicans have been divided between those who believe their policies are the problem and those who believe they just need better marketing—between those who believe they need to make better pizza and those who think they just need a more attractive box. Cantor, who is known among his colleagues as someone with strategic intelligence and a knack for political positioning, argues that it’s the box.

Elsewhere in the profile, Lizza recounts that one of the speakers at the Republican retreat was the CEO of Domino’s Pizza. No one would claim that the new Domino’s is great pizza, but it is much better than the slop that they used to sell. The importance of this is hard to miss, but somehow Cantor manages to miss it. It’s impressive that he listened to a presentation from a businessman on how his company attempted to improve the quality of their product and came away with the lesson that packaging and marketing are what matter most. That suggests that there are some lessons from political defeat and policy bankruptcy that leading members of the party are simply unwilling to learn. It will make little or no difference what one does to change the “box” of how the party is perceived unless there is a sustained effort to learn why disaffected voters can’t stand the GOP, and that goes far beyond how Republicans make their arguments or how they present the party to the public.

To take just one example, many Americans perceive the GOP to be too militaristic and eager to support new wars, but this isn’t just a matter of perception that can be remedied with different rhetoric or new “branding.” Americans perceive the party that way because it is that way. Most elected Republicans have acted the part of knee-jerk hawks and hard-liners long enough with dismal results that there’s no getting away from the reputation that their conduct has earned. In order for the GOP to regain public trust on these issues, it has to move away from hard-line policies, stop its automatic support for ever-larger military budgets, quit vilifying war skeptics and opponents, and generally avoid the ignorance and demagoguery that have helped to make the party into a laughingstock. When Democrats wanted to be seen to be more hawkish on foreign policy and national security, they had to become more hawkish in practice. Republicans now must make a similar move in the other direction to correct for the excesses of the last twelve years. It won’t be nearly enough to recite “peace through strength” as a mantra and then in the next breath hyperventilate about an “existential threat” from Iran.

Rod marvels at Cantor’s superficial diagnosis of Republican Party ills:

See, there’s nothing wrong with the policies, only the marketing. If only the public would be sporting enough to see this!

Something else that strikes me about the way a lot of Republicans and conservatives talk about the party’s political weaknesses is that so many fall back on the language of sales and marketing, and Rod and I are using the same language right now. This treats voters primarily if not solely as consumers of a political product rather than participants in a political process. Instead of seeing disaffected voters and talking about them as citizens and constituents whose interests need to be served, Republican leaders and strategists tend to see them at best as a customer to be handled and at worst as a mark to be fleeced. Even when Republicans and conservatives discuss the need for substantive improvements or significant policy changes, they often don’t fully appreciate that many former and new voters simply cannot bring themselves to trust the party’s leaders. If Cantor, Ryan, et al. don’t have that trust (and I believe they don’t), it may not matter whether they make substantive changes, superficial ones, or both.

The GOP has many serious problems, but the one that is probably least appreciated or understood is that it doesn’t have any well-known leaders that inspire any confidence or engender the least amount of trust. When major parties go into the political wilderness, they typically don’t look to the same leaders that led them into it to help get them out again. Unfortunately for them, Republicans have mostly relied on holdovers and retreads from the Bush era for their leaders in Congress and their presidential tickets. Of course, simply replacing the old guard with new people that say and do more or less exactly the same things won’t be very effective, either.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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