Why the GOP loses in a shutdown

By Steve Brawner
© 2015 by Steve Brawner Communications, Inc.

There’s been talk of two potential government shutdowns: one this week over funding Planned Parenthood that’s probably not going to happen, and one in December if the government reaches the debt ceiling. Whenever a shutdown occurs, Republicans will be blamed more than Democrats. That’s because of the brand Republicans themselves have created.

Branding is the process of creating a simple identity for a product, service or idea. It involves the entire organization’s efforts, from the product itself to the packaging to the advertising. Done correctly, it produce a powerful association with certain values and lifestyles (think Harley Davidson), overcoming temporary obstacles and even contrary facts.

How powerful is branding? At the beginning of the computer revolution, Apple branded itself as the company that sold easy-to-use personal computers. Its business model, however, was inferior to Microsoft’s, which copied Apple’s products and then made them widely available through Windows and Office. Apple almost went out of business.

Then Apple began a marketing campaign based on two words, “Think Different,” and introduced a series of revolutionary products and services, including the iPod, iTunes and the iPhone. In each case, Microsoft offered the same things, but none of them enjoyed great success. By then Apple didn’t just sell computer products; it sold thinking differently, while Microsoft just sold Windows and Office. Apple now is the world’s largest tech company.

But branding can backfire, as is currently the case with McDonald’s. For decades, McDonald’s branded itself as the place for a fast, inexpensive, tasty meal. It was the restaurant for families and kids. Its spokesman was a clown.

That brand still works with a lot of Americans, but for many, including many younger consumers, what once was considered inexpensive is now just cheap, and what once was considered a treat is now just fattening. Many American consumers would rather spend $8 for a better hamburger than spend $5 for a Big Mac. McDonald’s has tried to offer an upgraded menu, but it hasn’t caught on. If you have $8 to spend, you don’t spend it at McDonald’s.

Since 1980, Republicans have been better at branding than Democrats. Their message – “Less government” – fits neatly on a bumper sticker. Democrats, on the other hand, have been unable to sum up their message so succinctly. They don’t want to say they support a more activist government, so instead they’ve often simply branded themselves the “not Republican Party.” They need a better message. But that’s another column.

Whenever the government shuts down, it’s the result of decisions made by both parties. If the government were to shut down this week – which, as of this writing, it probably won’t – it would be because the Republicans forced the issue over Planned Parenthood. But Democrats also would be at fault. Republicans last week offered legislation that would run the government without funding Planned Parenthood, and Democrats blocked it.

But because of the two parties’ brands, whenever the government shuts down, casual observers of course will blame the Republicans. Who else would shut down the government but the anti-government party? Why would the Democrats shut down something they support?

At first, government shutdowns don’t have much of an effect. National parks close, but Americans can live without them for a while. Paychecks aren’t sent, so government workers take a few days off.

Over time, however, shutdowns start to sting. Paychecks are missed. National priorities go unfunded. Families cancel their once-in-a-lifetime trip to Washington, D.C., because the museums are closed. Credit agencies talk about downgrading the government’s rating. While anonymous members of Congress bicker from their little seats, the president steps off Air Force One and tells them it’s time to do their jobs.

Eventually, the anti-government activists capitulate, forced to concede that Uncle Sam really is necessary. The whole thing inevitably ends as a victory for big government. Then the blame games start.

A year before the election, voters would blame Republicans more than Democrats. Hillary Clinton’s campaign would tie the GOP nominee to the effort, knowing that, in the voting booth, casual voters tend to choose the party they think is least crazy.

So if Republicans force a government shutdown any time this year, they might as well call their efforts the “Hillary Clinton Employment Act.” When you’ve branded yourself the anti-government party, then you can’t use a government shutdown as a tactic. It looks a little clownish, which, as McDonald’s will tell you, isn’t working so well right now.

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