Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Politicking and Branding

Newt Gingrich’s presidential campaign must be in bad shape. According to Alexander Burns, practically the only person who even pretends that he has any business being president is starting to have doubts about its viability:
“Now, Gingrich is urgently struggling to convince the political class that his 2012 hopes aren’t dead, amid an unending barrage of Republican attacks over his comments on the House GOP’s proposed Medicare overhaul.

“Gingrich finally seemed to realize the seriousness of his political plight Tuesday, when he held three conference calls, made a personal apology to House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan and admitted in a Fox News appearance: ‘I made a mistake.’”
Newt has always had some pretty wild ideas, but I doubt that winning the Republican presidential nomination, much less the presidency, has been one he’s entertained seriously since about 1998. So while we can agree that Gingrich is unlikely to fulfill his “2012 hopes,” we should be clear about what he was hoping for.

Why do reasonable people run for president when they know they have no reasonable chance of winning? I can only think of two good reasons: self-promotion and the promotion of a cause. Usually, as I’ve written before, it’s a combination of both.

Donald Trump was a special case because his flirtation with a presidential campaign was entirely a matter of enhancing a commercial brand that was threatening to run out of steam. He pretended to run for president to keep people watching his reality television show, which he stages, in turn, to keep real estate developers paying him good money to lend his name to their projects. The only idea Trump was interested in promoting was the preposterous notion that he's some kind of force of nature. So his mission was accomplished when he'd made enough noise to make Obama roll out his long-form birth certificate.

Mike Huckabee’s motives for staging a long shot presidential campaign in the 2008 election cycle were less cynical and more typical. He ran both to promote the social conservative agenda within the Republican Party and to establish himself as one of its preeminent promoters. The only thing atypical about Huckabee in this respect was his spectacular success. He surely knew from the beginning that running as the most insistent social conservative in the Republican primaries wasn’t a ticket to the White House. But his combination of showmanship and visible sincerity propelled him into the elite class of highly paid and highly influential conservative media personalities. Who knows, doing well may even enable him to do some good by his own lights.

Gingrich probably got into the presidential race hoping to replicate Huckabee success, but is ending up looking more like a ham-handed Trump. Newt too is a tired brand. He’s been selling himself for a long time as a provocative conservative visionary who floats above the partisan landscape.  You've got to hand it to him for managing to maintain a reputation for being the conservative movement's idea man for as long as he did without coming up with a memorable idea since the "Contract with America."

A long shot presidential candidacy is Newt's way of regaining the attention of movement conservatives who have started looking to a new generation of politicians like Paul Ryan for ideological inspiration. To make that work, Newt needs to maintain a provocative, but respectful, distance from the conservative mainstream that Ryan now represents. Dissing him as a "conservative social engineer[]" is a pure provocation that shows that Gingrich’s presidential aspirations have about as much to do with self-promotion, and almost as little to do with principled conservatism, as Trump's.

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