Washington is obsessed with identity these days -- specifically, the fate of the once easily-recognizable GOP brand. It's one thing to ponder, analyze and pontificate about the mechanics behind the Republicans' loss of the House, Senate and White House over the last four years. But when just over a quarter of Americans are willing to call themselves Republicans, that's about something more than just a few bad candidates and Jack Abramoff.
Republican splinter groups are popping up, determined to help the GOP regain an identity and a positive message. If they could just find a great messenger, the thinking goes, they could win those wayward Republicans back. But the reality of being the out party is that you win elections not for who you are, but who you aren't. Sure, having a messiah appear and begin converting voters would be great, but the hard reality is this: For the GOP to succeed in '10 and '12, it needs President Obama to fail.
This isn't to say that Republicans can or should simply sit on their hands, waiting for the bottom to fall out on Democrats. Obama and his fellow Dems have skillfully put the GOP in a communications bind. Obama's style, more flex than force, makes "beating" him very tough. The role of the opposition party is to oppose, but while the base loves this, the rest of the country doesn't. In the eyes of Democrats and independents, Republicans look petulant, not principled.
And, while the GOP "true believers" aren't all that interested in what Democrats and independents think, national GOP strategists and White House 2012 aspirants are. They know they can't win the White House simply on the strength of their base. Plus, let's face it, it's just not that fun to be called the "party of no" or to have to defend your party's slide among key demographic groups (like Hispanics, young voters and college-educated voters). Most candidates -- despite the stereotype -- would rather run positive ads in their campaigns, even when they know that the best way to win is through attack ads. Remember, most of these folks got into the business to be liked.
Yet if they are going to change the perception of the party, shouldn't they pick some different players? Putting up Mitt Romney and Jeb Bush as the face of "change" (as the National Council for a New America did this weekend (subscription) at a Northern Virginia pizza restaurant) is a stretch.
That said, Obama's tremendous popularity has not made voters suddenly more willing to embrace the Democratic label. In fact, as Pollster.com's Mark Blumenthal recently noted, Democratic party ID has actually dropped 6 points in the last five months. Republican ID has dropped, too -- down 4 points. Americans are now more willing to identify themselves as independents (39 percent) than Democrats (33 percent) or Republicans (22 percent).
Perceptions of the Democratic Party aren't any better today than they were back in the pre-Obama days. In October of 2004, the NBC/Wall Street Journal poll showed the party with a 42 percent positive, 35 percent negative rating. In the most recent NBC/WSJ poll, that number was virtually unchanged -- 45 percent positive and 34 percent negative.
There's also no indication that voters are embracing a more active role in government -- a key Democratic priority. The latest Diageo/Hotline poll showed voters evenly divided on the question of whether more government involvement in the economy is a good idea (49 percent) or a bad one (44 percent). In the NBC/WSJ poll, 47 percent of respondents said government should do more, while 46 percent said government is doing too much.
What is really plaguing the GOP, then, is not that Democrats are winning the ideas war, but that Republicans are losing the image war. They are still saddled by an unpopular ex-president and his equally disliked VP, plus a very popular Democratic president. Being liked is nice, but you don't always need to be liked to win. In July of 2006, a few months before Democrats would take control of the House and Senate, the party had an approval rating of 32 percent -- not much higher than where Republicans are today. Obama hasn't shown any signs of making the sort of big mistakes that would give Republicans the opportunity to say, "I told you so." But if he does, the party does need to be ready to get that message out. Perhaps that will be the final legacy of these GOP start-ups.