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February 17, 2006

Packaging and Marketing

Tony Soltero

If I were starting a business and needed a top-notch sales and marketing manager, I'd make sure I hired a Republican operative. As distasteful as the party's worldview is, as hypocritical as they are on issues like fiscal responsibility and the size and reach of government, Republicans are utter geniuses when it comes to packaging and marketing their agenda and their candidates to an unsuspecting public.

In their most spectacular achievement, they were able to present George W. Bush – an immensely wealthy, sheltered man, born of privilege to a powerful, pedigreed family, never forced to take responsibility for any of the many stumbles in his life – as some sort of "man of the people." And 50 million Americans bought into the scam. Given the polls lately, I suspect a good number of them think differently today, especially if they've been wrestling with the new Medicare "benefits."

The singular talent of the GOP image machine is to stealthily package extremist candidates as "moderates," have them put on bland, happy faces in their campaigns, recite talking points, demonstrate their alleged "crossover" appeal by declaring murky, non-specific "support" for such things as education, health care, and the environment, and essentially leave the mudslinging to other departments of the party, so that the candidate can appear to be "above it all."

These techniques are quite flexible and portable; they served the GOP well when a far-right radical like Justice Samuel Alito was presented as "reasonable" and meekly confirmed by a Senate too intimidated by his wife's timely waterworks to ask anything resembling a probing question.

Of course, such a strategy works only if (a) the candidate himself gets with the program, and (b) a timid media fails to dig deep into the candidate's real background.

The Republicans pretty much have (b) covered, as only an occasional New York Times editorial or Keith Olbermann piece on MSNBC ever really takes Republicans to task with any forcefulness, at least at a national level. (Suppose it had been John Kerry who shot a fellow hunter. Would Fox News Channel be running crawlers expressing concern about Senator Kerry's feelings? Would CNN run loving, affectionate interviews with Senator Kerry as he poured out his soul?)

And given that the Republicans recruit their candidates not on the basis of intelligence or experience, but on the basis of their ability to communicate and sell shinola alternatives to the public, they do quite well with (a) as well.

But not always. Sometimes the mask slips.

Last week, one of the Republicans' most carefully-packaged Extremist Makeover projects wandered off the reservation, opened his mouth, and inserted a glorious helping of shoe leather. I refer, of course, to the GOP's Great Maryland Senate Hope, one Michael S. Steele.

The lieutenant governor, in opining about his decidedly non-mainstream views on stem cell research, compared the practice to the mass killings of the Holocaust; to a Jewish audience, no less. To make matters worse, he prefaced his comments with a condescending "You of all people" introduction.

One wonders if Mr. Steele picked up the Coeur d'Alene edition of the Republican Voter Outreach Guide by mistake.

The blowback was deservedly fast and furious, and Mr. Steele's campaign launched into immediate damage control. According to a report in Baltimore’s Sun, Lieutenant Governor Steele told a radio talk-show host that he "supports" embryonic stem-cell research. So was he against it before he was for it? Or is this another one of those meaningless statements of "support" meant to assuage undiscerning swing voters?

But whatever the particulars of the episode, the important revelation here is that Lieutenant Governor Steele is no moderate. He's simply being packaged as one – a must to get elected in a prosperous, highly educated state like Maryland. He's about as mainstream as Ann Coulter. And his strategy is to remain quiet about his actual platform – as he said so himself: "I don't need to talk about issues right now. I need to establish a relationship with voters." Well, he's certainly done that. Just perhaps not the relationship he envisioned.

He can't be blamed, though, for not wanting to talk about issues. If he did, he'd drop 20 points in the polls, given the high unpopularity of George W. Bush in this state, a man Lieutenant Governor Steele presumably admires and agrees wholeheartedly with. He's certainly spouted the typically Republican proclamations about the "sanctity of life:" the proud, firm GOP defense of life from the moment of conception to the moment of birth – but after that, you're on your own, kid. If he won't reveal his platform, the default assumption is that he's a typical Republican – not a winning formula in the state of Maryland.

It's still early, and Mr. Steele has plenty of opportunity to overcome this, particularly if his Democratic opponent lets him slide. Mr. Steele does have the advantage of access to the best and most effective political handlers on the planet.

He's going to need them.

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