Tarnished Image

By Charlie Cook

January 16, 2007

Republican campaign consultants have been publicly expressing a great deal of concern that the "GOP brand" has been damaged, or at least tarnished. For top strategists to be so candid about their party's problems is fairly unusual, and it reflects just how urgent they consider the party's need to redefine itself as it prepares for the 2008 campaign.

Republican pollster Glen Bolger isn't a fan of the phrase "GOP brand," but he defines it as supporting "lower taxes, lower spending, less government, strong national security, and values that reflect Middle America instead of mocking it."

Grading his party, Bolger says, "We're still good on taxes and values, but have big problems on 'less spending' and 'less government,' and there are cracks in the wall of our strong national security fortress. The other tarnish is that for a long time, Democrats were the party of the professional politicians, while Republicans came to Washington to fix the mess and go home. The scandals and the way Republicans ran the House mean that we have been more interested in power than in doing what is right -- which means we are no different than that which we replaced in 1994."

Tony Fabrizio, another top GOP pollster, approaches the discussion by asking three questions. First, "How does the image of the party's leader or titular head impact the image of the party?" Second, "How do the image/perceptions of the party's most visible interest groups define/impact the party's image?" And third, "What are perceived as the party's most important policy initiatives or accomplishments?"

Fabrizio argues, "When President Bush was very popular back in 2002 and 2003, and his popularity was derived primarily from the response to 9/11 and the war on terrorism, his personal strength and his policies became the key definition points for the GOP. So America saw a tough, resolute leader determined to keep us safe [and] heading up a party that completely embraced his goals as a cornerstone."

But Fabrizio continues, "By 2006, the president's image had eroded severely. What was once a very popular war in Iraq (a defining policy) had turned unpopular, and key interest groups -- conservative Christians, to name just one -- flexed their muscle on issues like Terri Schiavo and gay marriage. Most folks knew the GOP controlled Congress, and they saw them going along with the president on Iraq, or going along with the conservative Christians on Schiavo. The average person was paying more at the pump, was worried about their health care costs, and these folks up in Washington aren't doing anything to turn Iraq around, lower gas prices, or make my life better."

Under the circumstances, Fabrizio concludes, it's "not tough to see how the president, our interest groups, and policies -- or lack thereof -- put the party and the image of the party where it is today. Unfortunately, the GOP's image will remain pretty much the same unless or until the following happens: President Bush's image and/or job-approval [rating] bounce back dramatically, the Democrat-controlled Congress gives the GOP an opening to redefine [itself] by fighting/blocking unpopular Democratic proposals, or there is a clear 2008 GOP quasi-nominee."

A third perspective comes from yet another highly regarded GOP pollster, Jan van Lohuizen, who contends that the Republican Party's image or brand has suffered the most among voters who were attracted to the party because of its emphasis on fiscal conservatism.

"This is where the most serious damage has been done," van Lohuizen says. "On all party measures relating to this, we now trail. Democrats are [rated as] better on handling taxes, controlling spending, and balancing the budget."

Bush's op-ed piece last week in The Wall Street Journal, in which he pledged to submit a plan to balance the federal budget by 2012 and to make his tax cuts permanent, was clearly addressing the concerns of alienated fiscal conservatives. But restoring the luster of the GOP brand will take much more than a single newspaper column.

By Charlie Cook

January 16, 2007