The landslide defeat for the Republican Party in November has put the idea of an extreme makeover on the front burner for the GOP. We can’t know yet how much of a grassroots effort in this direction will be undertaken by the party leadership. The Republican Party is in a kind of existential netherworld right now, unsure of its current identity and equally unsure of how to reannounce that identity to the American public. It’s too soon for a postmortem but too late for an intervention.
One way to begin that reinvention, that change in what people think of you, is to change what they see. In a visual culture, this means a logo and a message. Thanks to Newsweek magazine and a group of image specialists and advertising agency creatives, the Republicans get to choose between four logos with the same message: “We’re different now.” Whether it’s believable is another matter entirely.
A slide show on the Newsweek Web site (get there from here) offers four possible rebrandings of the visual Republican image, whimsical and diverting variations on the GOPachyderm. As you might expect, some work better than others.
A button design from The Groop, of Los Angeles, reconfigures the Republican symbol of the elephant in almost abstract terms, superimposing a line drawing of eyes and tusks over a red cross, with the bottom arm of the cross tilted upward to represent the elephant’s trunk. It clearly and cleverly breaks with traditional depiction, but in some ways it goes too far, a design meant for a Republican chapter of the Red Cross.
Another approach, by Pentagram of New York, is more direct in what it intends to do. It directly weds the word “Republican” to other short, punchy words invoking the “re” prefix, and all of them having to do with reinvention or renewal.
It’s a potentially effective approach, but it’s rife with the potential for interparty mischief. It’s real easy, for example, to imagine someone pulling a Dick Tuck trick with the words, recasting them in suitably partisan fashion (“Repugnant. Repressive. Reactionary. Republican.”).
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Whatever the GOP’s grand plan for, uh, change comes down to really has to start with the product. In that respect, the party has been sending mixed messages, again. No sooner had the election ended than the conservative arm of the punditburo weighed in with various portentous explanations of What Just Happened & Why. Invariably there were calls to tear down the turnstiles, open wide the gates and embrace an ethnic and experiential diversity that hasn’t been the strong suit of the GOP.
All of which goes up against the musical musings of Chip Saltsman, a Tennessee candidate for the chairmanship of the Republican National Committee, who sent RNC members a lovely holiday gift: a CD of parody songs, one of which was a callous reworking the Peter, Paul & Mary classic “Puff the Magic Dragon” into something called "Barack the Magic Negro."
The song was first played in 2007, on the radio show of right-wing Doberman and former recreational pharmaceuticals enthusiast Rush Limbaugh.
As you might expect, and as he's perfectly entitled to, Saltsman took the right-to-free-speech road. "I think most people recognize political satire when they see it," Saltsman told CNN on Dec. 26. "I think RNC members understand that."
Standard denigrating procedure: There’s nothing harmful about it, it’s legitimate expression, there’s nothing to see here folks. Except that, while it may be as seemingly insignificant as he makes out, it calls into question how serious the Republicans are about doing anything to change their image, and further their relationship, with people that don't look like most of them.
Some of the party leadership seem to grasp this. "The 2008 election was a wake-up call for Republicans to reach out and bring more people into our party," said Republican National Committee Chairman Mike Duncan, on Dec. 27. "I am shocked and appalled that anyone would think this is appropriate, as it clearly does not move us in the right direction."
Clearly, there’s some conflict in that new Republican message. And until the Republican Party decides just which is the face it wants to show to the public — the Re-visionist one or the Re-petitive one — all the image tweaks and message games in the world won’t much help the GOP brand.
It's not hard to figure out why: You can’t send a message before you know what you want to say.
Image credits: Rethink button: Pentagram, New York. Three-image panel: The Groop, Los Angeles. Both images from Newsweek magazine: © 2008, 2009 The Washington Post Company.