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Jonah Goldberg / January 11, 2009

Obama and the Democratic Brand

It’s become a cliché to say that the Republican Party has lost its identity and is wandering around aimlessly like a slow-witted kid abandoned at the mall. Of course, simply because it’s a cliché doesn’t mean it’s not pretty much true. The GOP does have real problems, because many Republicans treated their conservative “brand” like a cheap, rented car; a useful vehicle when needed, one that can be driven without concern for its longevity and easily discarded the moment it takes you where you want to go.

But though the GOP’s mistakes are real, it’s also worth keeping in mind that many of its problems are not quite so unique to the Republicans as liberal detractors and the news media (increasingly a distinction without much of a difference) would have everyone believe. Many of the GOP’s problems stemmed from the fact that it was simply the party in power in a bitterly divided country.

Take the GOP’s “corruption problem.” The Democrats retook Congress in 2006 largely on the strength of popular dismay with Republican scandals. Disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff dominated the news, as did allegations of impropriety and corruption on the part of then-Republican House Majority Leader Tom DeLay and confirmed cases of criminality on the part of Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham. Just before the ‘06 election, Florida congressman Mark Foley was alleged to have “preyed” on young male congressional pages via online chats. The following summer, Sen. Larry Craig of Idaho was accused of using gay-bathroom Morse code to signal to an undercover cop in the next stall that he’d like a wingman on a trip to funky town. These stories fueled the corruption narrative leading to the Democratic sweep last November.

Sounds bad, and it was. But it’s worth remembering that Democrats had plenty of scandals of their own. In 2004, New Jersey Gov. James McGreevey resigned after the married father was alleged to have hired an unqualified boy toy to run his Homeland Security Department. In 2006, Rep. William Jefferson of Louisiana was caught with nearly $100,000 in his freezer. That same year, Rep. Patrick Kennedy of Rhode Island rammed his Ford Mustang into a Capitol Hill security checkpoint and, faster than his dad could say “Chappaquiddick,” checked himself into rehab for a pill addiction. Last spring, New York Gov. Elliot Spitzer, a self-righteous anti-corruption zealot, resigned after it was revealed he had been using a call-girl service. Then the Democrat who replaced Foley was brought down for allegedly firing his mistress. Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards was caught cheating on his cancer-stricken wife. Charles Rangel, the Democratic dinosaur in charge of the House Ways and Means Committee, is embroiled in a series of allegations of self-dealing corruption. And now, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson has bowed out as President-elect Barack Obama’s choice to be Commerce secretary thanks to an unfolding investigation into possible pay-for-play deal of less than Blagospheric proportions.

Such scandals are subjected to enormous double standards by many in the anti-Bush news media. But at least one of those double standards is defensible. The party in power warrants – and gets – more scrutiny than the other guys. Well, the Democrats now dominate American politics in a way they haven’t since the 1960s, if not the 1930s. Suddenly, a Democratic “culture of corruption” seems like a pretty easy story to write, thanks only in part to the most enjoyable – and therefore un-ignorable – scandal of the 21st century so far: Blagopalooza. Wiretaps, grotesque corruption, the race card, R-rated dialogue and hair you can see from space: What’s not to love?

Of course, the GOP’s problems can’t and shouldn’t be chalked up entirely to ethics. The handling of the Iraq war before the troop surge created enormous problems for the GOP, as did the absolutely diarrheic spending of the Republican Congress in the Bush years.

But it’s worth recalling that Democrats clawed their way back into power by promising to be all things to all people and by hewing to a politics of “if Bush is for it, we’re against it.” Neither of these poses is going to be of much use in power. “To govern is to choose,” goes the old saying, and the Democrats will have to make choices that will brand it in the minds of voters.

Fortunately for the Democrats, Obama has the political wind at his back and a relatively clear mandate to tackle the economy. Even so, when you descend from the presidential level to the congressional and (ahem) gubernatorial level, the Democratic Party increasingly looks like a rerun of the old sitcom “Soap,” with all the hijinks, corruption and tomfoolery once associated with the GOP. Congress’ Democratic bulls have agendas of their own that might serve their purposes – “card check,” gay marriage, whatever – but won’t help brand the Democratic Party as a majority party.

George W. Bush faced a similar climate in 2000 when the GOP machine had its own self-serving priorities. Only partly in response to the Democrats’ knee-jerk partisanship, the White House ultimately decided to pursue an equally partisan Republicans-only governing strategy. It worked for a while, but eventually Bush and the Republicans burned through their credibility, goodwill and popularity and are now licking their wounds and moping like a big dog whose food bowl has been moved.

It’s a lesson Obama should keep in mind now that the era of Democratic branding has truly begun.

© 2009 Tribune Media Services, Inc. 

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