Happy Days Aren’t Here Again

The Republican Party continues to struggle with its brand. A Washington Post-ABC poll this week tells us that in spite of Barack Obama’s relative unpopularity, and in spite of the economy, the Democratic Party is still more popular with voters than the GOP. Forty-eight percent said they view the Democratic Party favorably, while the Republicans came in at 40%. (Neither of the parties in our two party system broke through to fifty, which tells you something about the moment we’re in.) Only 13% said their view of the GOP was “strongly” favorable, down from 19% in February 2010 and well below the 21% who “strongly” favor the Democrats. Also in the poll a nameless Democrat beats a nameless Republican for the presidency. Republicans are lucky the president has a name.

The first thing to say, and the reports on the poll said it, is that it has always been this way. The Democratic Party has always polled better than the Republican Party. But this is a good time to consider why.

The broad and overarching reason is that 20th-century branding is still culturally powerful.

What is the Democratic brand? It is the party of the little guy, the outsider. The party of “We Shall Overcome,” of great movements—civil rights, feminism, the environment. The party of “Listen, isn’t this country rich enough to afford a little for the old, the infirm, people who need a boost?” You can argue the facts and legitimacy of this all day, but it lingers as a powerful part of the Democratic Party brand.

And there’s still a certain lingering mystique to the Democratic Party. It retains a vestigial reputation for a kind of glamour, sophistication and broadness. Isn’t that Averell Harriman over there with Chip Bohlen? There’s Babe and Bill, Jack and Jackie. There was an ethos of easily worn wealth joined to a spirit of declared egalitarianism. The guy standing with Averell, the rough-featured labor leader with hands like shovels: It’s Dave Dubinsky of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union. The Democratic Party in its best days was hard hat and top hat, a party of the little guy run by the most interesting and glamorous big guys.

Is all this in any way relevant to today? No. Now it’s is brute, grubby and lacking in grace. But it’s part of the vestigial brand.

And who in the 20th century were the Republicans? The sober ones. The ones who said you had to live within your limits. The ones who said there actually were limits. The ones who said you have to know who man is, don’t push him too far.

You remember your grandfather with respect because he worked hard, made sure the household stayed afloat, earned the money, and warned of things: Don’t run up debt, be true to your word. Because he saved, your father went to engineering school and your family was lifted up.

You acknowledge this and speak of it with pride. But you know what you remember with a surge of love? When grandma used to slip you a five. When she’d put her hands in her pockets and bring out candies she brought just for you.

Grandpa was protective: He locked the door and paid the bills. Grandma would have a drink Sunday night and talk about how you should all go to France on a steamer and eat eclairs.

You know grandpa was a Republican. You survived because of him. You know grandma was a Democrat. She made life fun. At his worst, he was a bit of a scold. At her worst, she was dreamy and scattered. Actually, maybe that’s a definition of the best of the old bipartisanship.

The Democrats have all that going for them. And of course there was something else. American culture, high and low, is governed and run by the entertainment industry. And the entertainment industry is, and has been since the New Deal, firmly rooted in the Democratic Party. It was invented by the ethnics of the East, the children of immigrant Irish and Jews and others who joined the Democratic Party as soon as they got here. And they let everyone in America know, and they do it to this day, that the Democratic Party is the cool party, and the Republican Party is the one a nice person should be slightly embarrassed to belong to, the one that seems like a character flaw to belong to. You know this if you are a conservative in a blue state. You wind up constantly emphasizing that no, you like everyone and no, you’re not angry. “I’m trying to be protective over here and keep the family going!”

Democrats were, through most of the 20th century, better at propaganda, though they didn’t think of it that way. Liberalism attracted artists and artists made stories about the greatness of liberal leaders: “Sunrise at Campobello,” “PT 109.” Democrats know how to celebrate themselves.

That the Republican Party could overcome all this is actually quite a feat, and speaks of the enduring strength of core conservative convictions.

Party brand don’t dictate outcomes. But they matter anyway, because a brand is a reputation. Here both the Republicans and the Democrats face challenges.

A Republican challenge is what happened to the party in the years 2000-08. Conservatives, in the Washington Post-ABC poll, did not speak as highly of the Republican Party as they have in the past. Somewhere around 2004 the Republican Party broke in a new way. The GOP had been riven before—Taft-Eisenhower, Goldwater-Establishment, Reagan-Ford—and always healed back. But the split that grew after 2004 was different. Trust broke, and in a time not of peace and prosperity but of crisis. Which made the impact deeper.

What is called the tea party is the rightward part of the conservative base. They became angry that they had trusted the Republican establishment during a Republican presidency, only to see that establishment run up huge debt, launch foreign wars, contribute to the surveillance state, and refuse to control America’s borders. What made the anger deeper is that they were angry at themselves. They felt complicit: They had not rebelled, they had trusted the party: “They’re the GOP establishment, they must know what they’re doing.” What the conservative base had learned by 2008 is: Don’t trust the Republican party. Don’t trust its establishments. The old loyalty was over. It may or may not come back.

The Democrats’ challenge? They’re living on faded glory, and Mr. Obama has done nothing for the brand. In January 2009 it was bright and shiny. He has murked it up pretty good. The cascade of government-private sector scandals, from Fannie Mae to Solyndra, has dulled the brand further. Party of the working man? Party of the guy who kited the mortgage deals, got bailed out, and left the working man living in his car.

The Republicans’ challenge now: holding together, and breaking 20th-century stereotypes. They should distance themselves from government even as they prove they can govern, and not only oppose but propose. They should put themselves apart from the rigged, piggish insider life of Washington. And try not to look nuts while they’re doing it.