Republicans’ Brand Loses Them the Shutdown Fight

When the Republicans shut down the government in the 1990’s, Rep. Newt Gingrich thought the president would take the blame — but Rep. Dick Armey knew that was the wrong answer to the wrong question.

Soldier hijinks
Dick Armey, not Dick Army.
The question would be one of party, and the answer of who to blame would be the Republicans.

Anyone looking to blame Republicans for the current Obamacare-driven government shutdown has a pretty easy case to make on the facts, but the facts don’t always speak for themselves. That’s why party brands are so important. As Greg Sargent recently wrote,

[I]t’s very possible broader public perceptions of Obama and Republicans — on topics such as which side is really on the side of the middle class and which side is genuinely committed to constructive governing — will shape public views of the shutdown. Given that polling at the very start of the shutdown suggested the middle of the country views Republicans harshly on both of those scores — and is now overwhelmingly disapproving of the GOP’s handling of the shutdown — there’s some evidence to suggest this may be what’s beginning to happen.

There was some evidence that Republican brand attributes would color reactions when Sargent wrote that, but with last week’s Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll, the evidence is now pretty overwhelming. As selected by Markos:

  • By a 22-point margin (53 percent to 31 percent), the public blames the Republican Party more for the shutdown than President Barack Obama – a wider margin of blame for the GOP than the party received during the poll during the last shutdown in 1995-96.
  • Obama’s political standing has remained relatively stable since the shutdown, with his approval rating ticking up two points since last month, and with the Democratic Party’s favorability rating declining just three points (from 42 percent to 39 percent).

And then there’s this bit of understatement:

A memo released Thursday by GOP firm Resurgent Republic acknowledged that the shutdown is “more toxic to voters” than the Affordable Care Act, noting that the “plan of using a government shutdown to spark a national discussion on Obamacare fell flat.”

Government is not a solution to our problem. Government is the problem
When this is your party’s brand, it’s hard to convince people the government shutdown’s not your problem.

All of which is to say, if you spend decades branding your party as the party hostile to government, then you take some unpopular actions that are demonstrably hostile to government, people who pay close attention to the facts are likely to blame you — but so are people who didn’t follow the facts at all.

It’s no different than a Fiat owner (from before its brand relaunch in the U.S., aka the Fix It Again Tony days) who knows his car has a reputation for breaking down. He’ll blame the manufacturer whenever he has car trouble, even in situations where the owner of a car with a more reliable brand would blame luck or circumstance.

Negative brand associations can long outlive their usefulness.
I would say shutting down the government was never really a great idea — especially since Republicans don’t seem to have had a firm answer to the question of why they were doing it, as their shifting demands have shown. Republican legislators probably should have been more aware of the role their party brand would play in the shutdown, like Dick Armey was in the 90s. But then again, as I’ve said, that’s why their information bubble is so dangerous.