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We can't afford more of the same

Posted: September 9, 2008 8:55 p.m.
Updated: November 11, 2008 5:00 a.m.

Legend has it that when Rome was aflame during the Great Fire of A.D. 64, Emperor Nero dressed himself up in stage costume, plucked upon his lyre, and sat out the catastrophe singing the "Sack of Illium."
The more popular telling goes that "Nero fiddled while Rome burned." But by lyre or fiddle, the image painted by the story is a picture of leadership overwhelmingly detached from reality.

The closest current example of detached leadership is last week's Republican Convention. For, while America burns in an economic firestorm of nearly unprecedented proportions, the vested Republican hierarchy sang and danced and toasted themselves on their convention's stage in front of the entire nation of financial burn victims.

One of John McCain's popular TV spots proclaims, "Americans are worse off than they were four years ago." That's certainly an honest, if not understated, admission. John McCain might be the only Republican around with the guts to face up to the truth.

For the life of me, I can't understand the self-deception and detachment present at that convention. These are the very guys directing and collecting the jaw-dropping earmarks and favors of the past eight years of Republican control that have gotten us into such hot water. These were the prime cut of the Republican power base. Yet, incredulously, we witnessed these pork-barrel bacon bobbers clapping their hoofs to "change the broken Washington" they themselves broke with such abandon.

Say what?

To see the vested power base chanting for change seems too much like a pen of pigs oinking for their own butchering. But who knows? Maybe the porcine elite has a new understanding of their rightful place in the American diet. Perhaps all the excess, all the deficits, all the blood and waste of Iraq have finally gotten so burdensome that Republicans, having hit rock-bottom, recognize their sorry state and know they have to change to save their bacon.

But something more humanly cynical was just as likely at play upon that convention stage. Nero blamed the burning of Rome on Christian arsonists - and, sticking blame on the innocent, got away with dodging culpability for poor city planning.

Republicans, after torching America for eight full years, shamelessly and incredulously pointed collective fingers at the one guy completely clean of the ashes and cinders - Barack Obama. When in trouble, pin the tail on the Donkey and hope no one notices the switcheroo.

But facts are facts, and more ugly facts flamed up during that Republican bash. National unemployment rose to an eye popping 6.1 percent - about the highest level since George H.W. Bush took his own toll on everyday Americans. U.S. home repossessions hit an astonishing 2.75 percent of all housing stock! If America isn't in flames, things are surely getting smoking hot in our tinderbox.

Still, convention speakers fiddled and sang - with scant mention of the economy, or health care, or education, or housing meltdowns. No, the whole of the convention was detached from the flames licking at our doors, and sold us and told us that this election is about "values" - not the issues scaring the bejeebies out of most of us regular folk. So how does an entrenched establishment sell a brand of "change" that innately runs counter to its own self-interest? The answer lies in clever marketing.

Put new labels on old cans and sell them as new. Draw up a fresh slogan and update the company mascot. A younger face for Betty Crocker. A prettier Aunt Jemima. A sexier Sun-Maid Raisin lady. Bolt tail fins and a fancy new grille onto that old, worn chassis.

This year, the new Republican brand image is "MaverickTM" - as in the McCain-Palin MaverickTM ticket. Like New Coke, it's much the same goo as the old stuff, but freshened up with new packaging and blended with one new unknown ingredient.

Drum roll, please: Introducing ... the new façade of the new Republican brand: Sarah Palin. Out on that convention floor delegates didn't actually know much about Sarah Palin - none of us did, and still don't. Just a pretty face, a few minutes of a scripted speech, and the promise of (Sexy) Small Town Wholesome GoodnessTM mixed with Palin Praise the Lord and Pass the AmmoTM attitude.

In marketing, it's emotion - not substance - that generally makes the sale. Pistol Packing SarahTM succeeded like Hula-HoopsTM in deflecting attention away from eight years of Republican mismanagement toward happier imagery of Independent American FrontierswomanTM.

I'll tip my plastic cowboy hat to John McCain - his gutsy Palin pick hit marketing gold in the face of tough odds. The finest moment of the convention, yet perhaps the least popular with the vested crowd, was McCain's speech itself. In it, if only momentarily, the real McCain acknowledged Republicans largely blew it for the prior eight years.

"There's a lot of repair work to be done," he said. An honest moment, momentarily reanimating the real maverick in the MaverickTM-branded John McCain. This was a glimpse of the McCain I voted for in the primaries of 2000 and 2008. But does that entrenched elite squirming through McCain's speech really want or expect real change from a real-deal John McCain? Or is it just a Maverick McCainTM cardboard marketing placard they're hoping for?

For just a moment, we saw a Nero ‘fessing up his gang had fiddled while the nation went up in flames. For just a moment, we saw the real McCain speak truth to power.

Should new branding get the Republican product sold - will the real McCain be able to force real change against the inertia of the entrenched Republican elite? Or will it be "Four more years of the same?"
Can we trust a new captain, or do we need a whole new crew? We have a lot riding on that question. America can't afford "more of the same" - regardless of however fancy the packaging.

One thing for certain: If new formula McCain-Palin gets the sale, they'll share shelf space with an primarily Democratic Congress demanding the "change" voters thought they bought with those slogans of (Sexy) Small Town Wholesome Goodness.TM

Gary Horton lives in Valencia. His column reflects his own views, not necessarily those of The Signal. "Full Speed to Port" appears Wednesdays in The Signal.


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