Will Bunnett

Politics • Branding • Psychology

Pulling the Scooby Doo Mask off Paul Ryan

Paul Ryan is the foremost expert among elected Republicans when it comes to whitewashing unpopular positions, so if he is now attempting to brand himself as a social justice fighter, could that mean an incipient trend for the Republican Party?

Paul Ryan in workout gear.

Paul Ryan is a dishonest fitness enthusiast, too.

Paul Ryan is ready to move beyond last year’s failed presidential campaign and the budget committee chairmanship that has defined him to embark on an ambitious new project: Steering Republicans away from the angry, nativist inclinations of the tea party movement and toward the more inclusive vision of his mentor, the late Jack Kemp.

Ryan’s interest in poverty dovetails with a larger effort to revamp the GOP, which has lost the popular vote in five of the past six presidential elections.

So, poverty: unpopular. Fighting poverty: popular. But how can Paul Ryan get a slice of that sweet poverty fighting pie without compromising his core principle of screwing people over? By attacking anti-poverty programs, like he always does, but with a new and improved, but equally misguided, moral focus:

“Paul wants people to dream again,” Holloway said of Ryan. “You don’t dream when you’ve got food stamps.”

Republicans, led by Ryan, have long pushed for drastic cuts to programs that keep the chronically poor out of the most abject misery. And led by Ryan, they are obviously sensitive to the criticism that approach tends to earn them.

For a long time, he worked hard to advance these cruel policies while cultivating a brand as an earnest and jocular wonk:

“Ryan has, up to this point, been viewed and as an ideologue, but one with whom you could have a fair disagreement,” Larry Parnell, the director of The George Washington University Strategic PR Master’s program, told ABC News. “He has the reputation of being straightforward, consistent, and articulate.”

But the scrutiny coming to bear on these positions recently is largely a result of Ryan’s own success. Joining the 2012 Republican ticket with Mitt Romney was a huge blessing for Ryan’s brand awareness, but it also quickly eroded one of the most bedrock characteristics of a successful brand — honesty. From last year:

Having spent the last 14 years in Congress building a political brand rooted in his avowed devotion to telling “hard truths,” Republican vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan entered this election season as no one’s favorite to be accused of habitual dishonesty on the campaign trail.

Most of the critical focus has been directed toward Ryan’s speech at the Republican National Convention in Tampa last week.

It was there, before a naturally partisan and obviously delighted audience, that he claimed President Obama had “funneled” $716 billion from Medicare to pay for the new health care law, ignoring the fact that his own “Roadmap” had called for the same savings, accrued in the same manner: By capping reimbursements to medical providers, not beneficiaries.

Scooby and the gang unmask another villain.

Why, that ghost haunting our social safety net wasn’t a ghost at all: it was Congressman Paul Ryan!

Ryan’s schtick was always a pretty simple framing con: put a veneer of policy smarts over bad math and call it “hard truths.” That way you can write off anyone who doesn’t buy your bogus math as ideologically driven. Applying that same approach to poverty was the genius of “compassionate conservatism,” the best stroke of branding in the last 15 years for an increasingly niche brand like Republicanism to reach out to a mainstream audience.

But the irony of the compassionate conservative approach this time, with Paul Ryan, is that it’s built on such a clear and well known foundation of dishonesty. That means it may work with the niche core, for whom it makes intuitive sense and therefore seems honest, but it isn’t likely to succeed with the mainstream audience that is its presumptive target.

It’s tempting to try to fix a legitimate problem with a branding veneer, instead of changing your fundamental approach to something like poverty. But the more you try to “brand” yourself as something you’re not, the more it’s going to undermine perceptions of your honesty — and pretty soon you’re no better than the creepy guy “haunting” the amusement park, waiting for Scooby and the gang to unmask you after each re-brand.

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