America Turns Left
The days of the Right Wing Nut Job are numbered:
Schwarzenegger calls for 'rebranding' GOP
Carla Marinucci, Chronicle Political Writer
Sunday, May 18, 2008
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California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger created shock and awe in the Republican Party when he warned years ago that the GOP was in danger of "dying at the box office" by failing to make the sale to a wide swath of voters.
And with the presidential election looming, the Republican governor of the nation's most populous state - a decidedly blue state - has now found a chorus of agreement. The Republican "brand" - thanks to an unpopular president, a war, gas prices, foreclosures and deficit - has become such damaged goods that GOP Rep. Tom Davis of Virginia groused last week that "if we were dog food, they would take us off the shelf."
The answer for GOP presidential candidate John McCain: take a page out of the Schwarzenegger playbook and sell a product that is "counter" to the current GOP brand on issues like global warming, spending and even immigration reform.
McCain comes to the Golden State this week on a campaign and fundraising swing, including a rally Thursday in Stockton being publicized with an invitation graced by a picture of a McCain hug - not with President Bush but with Schwarzenegger.
And the governor, in an interview with The Chronicle last week, had some candid advice and observations, not only about the GOP brand - but on McCain's efforts to expand his appeal to independents and disillusioned Democrats.
"The Republican idea is a great idea, but we can't go and get stuck with just the right wing," Schwarzenegger said. "Let's let the party come all the way to the center. Let those people be heard as much as the right. Let it be the big tent we've talked about.
"Let's invade and let's cross over that (political) center," he said. "The issues that they're talking about? Let them be our issues, and let the party be known for that."
'It didn't work'
He observed that his own political opponents, including former Democratic Gov. Gray Davis, tried to define him in much the way McCain is being defined by Democrats - as joined at the hip with Bush.
"It didn't work," he laughed. But "how does (McCain) beat the Democrats? By offering a better future. He needs to offer hope, he needs to go in and show he can solve the problem in Iraq and have better relations with other countries again ... and bring the economy back."
As Democrats get closer to picking their party's nominee, McCain is getting advice on his image "rebranding" from some of the same GOP insiders who helped Schwarzenegger win re-election. They include senior campaign adviser Steve Schmidt and former Schwarzenegger communications director Adam Mendelsohn, partners in a GOP political consulting firm, Mercury LLC in Sacramento.
"The Republican brand may be in a bad position because of the Bush presidency, but people recognize that John McCain is not George Bush. ... John McCain has a long track record of being a nontraditional Republican - and so does Schwarzenegger," said Mendelsohn.
That makes the Arizona senator well-positioned to build a coalition of voters that can cut into the appeal of the Democratic presidential nominee, who increasingly looks to be Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, he said.
With less than six months until the November election, McCain isn't alone in trying to repackage the GOP's image and outreach; indeed, rebranding fever appears to have caught on across the party.
It explains why, in the wake of losing a solid Republican seat in Mississippi in a special election last week, Republican leader Rep. John Boehner of Ohio sent out a memo outlining what he called a "new positive agenda" for the GOP - titled "The Change America Deserves."
Political observers watching the rebranding effort say it represents a drive to compete with Obama - whose motto is "the change we can believe in" - as he seeks independent and Latino voters who could make or break the 2008 election.
"They don't have any choice," Averell "Ace" Smith, who managed campaigns for Hillary Rodham Clinton in California, Texas and North Carolina, said of McCain's efforts to be a "counter" Republican. "If they ran any other race, they'd doom themselves from the first day.
Voters up for grabs
"(Republicans) have to move away from the status quo, because the voters up for grabs are independents and Latinos. And neither of them are particularly in love with ideologists. They both move toward moderation."
On the campaign trail last week, McCain's efforts to position himself as counter to the Republican brand were keenly evident.
He spoke in Portland on what's been described as the first leg of his global warming tour; later in the week, he delivered a landmark speech, drawing some distinct contrasts to the Bush White House - whose disapproval ratings are now a whopping 71 percent - politically as well as stylistically.
On the policy front, McCain said that by 2013, the end of his first term, he envisions most U.S. troops coming home from Iraq "in victory," as well as delivering health care and restoring "economic confidence."
And, acknowledging a White House criticized as too partisan and insular, McCain said that as president he'll ask Democrats to serve in his administration and vowed to "set a new standard for transparency and accountability. ... When we make errors, I'll confess them willingly." He vowed to institute regular presidential question-and-answer grillings before Congress, much like the British prime minister's weekly televised "Question Time."
Democrats immediately jabbed away.
"Why should McCain stop there when he could go the whole nine yards - by letting our Democratic majority in the House pick the president, just like the parliamentary system picks a prime minister?" quipped Kirsten Xanthippe, a California Democratic activist living in the United Kingdom.
"McCain isn't the real McCoy - he's just a 'prime mimicker' of conservative Bush policies, dressed up in the touchy-feely softness of sheep's clothing," she said.
"It was wise for him to do what he did this week," the governor said. "That's an attempt to show what his vision is. ...People need to see that there's a plan. He's in the center in a lot of ways, and that will help him - especially in states like California."
'Republican brand is terrible'
Some Republicans agreed that McCain's work is required in an election year where challenges loom for the GOP.
"The Republican brand is terrible right now," said Bill Whalen, a research fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution. "It's been damaged by a weak presidency ... and the various legs on which the Republican platform rests have been kicked away."
Among them, Whalen said, has been fiscal discipline - crumbling along with the $1 trillion-plus deficit - and family values, a victim of corruption and scandals involving a cast of characters from lobbyist Jack Abramoff to jailed former San Diego Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham.
"McCain runs at a time when the party itself is ill-defined, and that means McCain has to turn the election on personality - and that ties into being a political maverick," Whalen said. "You'll see McCain saying, 'My opponent talks about change - but I not only talk the talk, I walk the walk.' "
Party's core principles
California Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner - the only Republican besides Schwarzenegger elected to statewide office - said his party's image has been battered because GOP officials have forgotten the party's core principles: lower taxes, less government.
"Spending has skyrocketed. ... There's been this real crisis in earmarks, which are not justified, and there's been corruption because of ethics violations," he said. "Republican Party leaders have done a terrible job and let the country down."
But Poizner, speaking from Jerusalem where he accompanied Bush to celebrate Israel's 60th birthday, said GOP leaders like himself, Schwarzenegger and McCain have proven it's possible to stick to Republican principles and win elections, even when polls show the GOP to be the underdog.
"Swing voters are looking for people who have the ability to get things done in both the private sector and public sector," said Poizner, who is considering a 2010 run for governor of California. "We can win elections if we get back to the basics - and that's something that Sen. McCain can do."
Democrats: Barack Obama heads for Iowa as Oregon and Kentucky primaries loom. A7
Recall that earlier generations faced down fascism and communism not just with missiles and tanks, but with sturdy alliances and enduring convictions. They understood that our power alone cannot protect us, nor does it entitle us to do as we please. Instead, they knew that our power grows through its prudent use; our security emanates from the justness of our cause, the force of our example, the tempering qualities of humility and restraint.
-President Barack Obama, 1st Inaugural address