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How a Good Political Brand Goes Bad

I was on NPR’s To the Point the other day talking about CPAC, Rand Paul, and the direction of the GOP. The party has stumbled into exactly the wrong mix of libertarianism and Christian conservatism—the libertarians are now seen as bringing what I called a “heartless ruthlessness” to the party’s economic thinking, or at best an only theoretical concern for the poor, unemployed, and middle class; while the Christian conservatives have picked up a reputation as a force for intolerance.

My point is about public perception, whether that perception is fair or not. The same elements mixed differently can be successful: when the Christian conservative component of the GOP is perceived as attesting to a genuine concern for Americans who aren’t affluent, and when libertarian economics is seen as a mark of commitment to more efficient government and economic growth. But it takes leadership to bring out the best in a coalition rather than the worst, and the GOP has had catastrophically inept leadership for a while now.

The party has fallen by default into the worst caricatures of its coalition’s components. The very choice of leaders in the last election revealed how tone deaf Republicans had become: however Catholic Paul Ryan may or may not be, he’s identified in the public mind entirely with the business wing of conservatism. So was Romney, who had the added burden of religious background that he dared hardly speak of.

Meanwhile, even though it should be obvious that a business-minded GOP doesn’t want to pour effort into culture-war issues, the party has acquired a reputation for out-and-out hostility to women, minorities, and homosexuals. It’s a complete botch: both the economics and the social policies of the party have been turned from strengths into weaknesses.

That’s what you get when you prioritize political technique and ideological checklists over creative engagement with ideas. It’s also what you get when you try to be someone you’re not—when a John McCain or Mitt Romney poses as a culture warrior, for example. That alienates moderate voters who might actually a like a moderate Republican candidate, even as it fails to excite right-wing activists about candidates who transparently are not the men they pretend to be. The sheer insincerity of the exercise repels yet more voters.

It also confounds the party’s ability to analyze its mistakes: moderates can say, with good reason, that McCain and Romney were too tainted by an unpopular right-wing brand, while right-wingers can say with equal justice that McCain and Romney weren’t conservatives and never expressed conservatism persuasively. One faction prescribes more moderation, the other prescribes more conservatism, and neither gets the point that the wrong kinds of moderation and conservatism together are crippling the party.

about the author

Daniel McCarthy is editor at large of The American Conservative. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, USA Today, The Spectator, The National Interest, Reason, Modern Age, and many other publications. Outside of journalism he has worked as internet communications coordinator for the Ron Paul 2008 presidential campaign and as senior editor of ISI Books. He is a graduate of Washington University in St. Louis, where he studied classics. Follow him on Twitter.

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