In the March 21st New Yorker, Jeffrey Goldberg has a piece titled "The Unbranding," which addresses the difficulties faced by potential Democratic presidential candidates on national security issues in a post 9/11 world. The article focuses on Joe Biden, but Richard Holbrooke actually has the best lines:
[Holbrooke] seemed displeased when I asked whether the Democrats had a credibility problem on defense issues, and he finally said, "Look, the answer is, we have to do an unbranding." By this he meant that the Democrats had to do a better job of selling to the American people what he believes is already true--that the Democrats are every bit as serious on the issue as Republicans. "We have to brand more effectively. It's marketing."
...Holbrooke suggests that the Republicans have boxed in the Democrats, by stealing their ideas. "The Republicans, who always favored bigger defense budgets--we were the soft-power people, the freedom-and-democracy people--now seek to own both the defense side and the values side of the debate," Holbrooke said. He believes that if the Iraq war actually does bring about the hoped-for results it might help the Democrats. "We'd be better off as a country and as a party if Iraq is a success and we get it behind us. The Democrats can then talk about their traditional strengths, domestically and internationally."
I'm sympathetic to Holbrooke's plight, but I doubt that he and his fellow "national-security Democrats" will make much headway before 2008. Too many people on the left seem to be quietly (or not so quietly) hoping for setbacks in Iraq, convinced that they can use those setbacks as ammunition against Bush. It ain't gonna happen--the electorate is in it for the long haul, and they have clearly indicated that they'll support the administration's anti-terrorism policies without "going wobbly." It's conceivable that further domestic attacks would turn the tide against Bush, as the Madrid bombing did to Aznar in Spain--but I think they'd have the opposite affect and harden American resolve.
But more fundamentally, the Republicans have beem pummeling the Democrats on national security ever since the Communists took over China in 1949, and I don't see any signs that a) the GOP is planning to give up this advantage, or b) the Dems have the ability to "unbrand" themselves on this issue, Holbrooke's advice notwithstanding.
The entire discussion raises the question of whether a political party--an institution that communicates so many subtle yet powerful messages through symbols and implicit cues, an institution that is so intensively "branded"--is even capable of "unbranding" itself in this way.
Looked at from that perspective, Holbrooke's reasoning seems contradictory. On the one hand, he's asserting that the Democrats are "every bit as serious" (in Goldberg's words) as the Republicans about national security, and they just need to do a better job of getting that message across. But on the other hand, he's admitting that the Democrats' are perceived as weak on national security, and they'd be better off if Iraq went swimmingly so the debate could shift to, say, Social Security reform.
I agree with Holbrooke that the Democrats need to do something. But the answer is not flashier PR campaigns about their patriotic fervor, or frantic attempts to guide the debate back into safe domestic waters. If the Democrats are to truly undertake the massive job of "rebranding" themselves, they're going to have to do better than that.
The most fascinating political rebranding effort I've ever seen is underway right here in California. Almost singlehandedly, Arnold Schwarzenegger has heroically reversed the image of the state's Republicans. As recently as 1999, the California GOP was led by Governor Pete Wilson, an almost comic caricature of the dour, bloodless, mean-spirited Republican. But today Arnie's taking the best aspects of both parties' brands and combining them into something new. The Democrats' social liberalism and love of freedom, and the Republicans' fiscal responsibility (at least until recently) and love of country are being united under the banner of the GOP, and the party of Bob Dornan and Dana Rohrabacher is being radically transformed.
Schwarzenegger is succeeding not only because of his deep pockets and personal star-power, but also because the state GOP was a broken, dispirited failure, and they knew they had to remake themselves--they had to rebrand--if they were to stay relevant. I don't think the Democrats have sunk so low on the national level--yet. They still think they just need better publicity. Sadly, it appears that they're going to have to lose a few more elections before they understand the difference between superficial PR and an actual brand that's not just skin-deep.