Republicans gathered last month at their winter meeting for a postmortem regarding their defeat last November, and what Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal called their “stupid party” behavior. Without abandoning their core values, Jindal suggested Republicans must “change just about everything else” they’re doing in trying to reach the American voter.
Those changes began to show themselves this month in the bite of a doughnut and a drink of water.
It’s important to understand not all that ails the Republican Party is rooted in policy positions. In fact, it has little to do with their problem. It is true the Republican ranks are somewhat fractious today.
The debate among the establishment members of the political media as well as former aides, consultants, chiefs of staff, and spokespeople of various former Republican office-holders rages on. That’s typical and healthy for the losing party. Republicans should discuss and debate their stand on immigration, social issues, defense issues, spending, etc. That stuff can be researched and polled.
What can’t be researched, polled or debated is the ability to connect with voters. You either can or you can’t. The total lack of Republican salespeople able to connect with an increasingly uninformed electorate is a big problem. There are a couple of notable exceptions who are showing Republicans how to do it.
New Jersey governor Chris Christie has been putting on a clinic for a few years now in how to message. The day after his annual state of the state address at the beginning of February, Christie’s communications team launched a media blitz to sell not only the message, but also the messenger.
Team Christie pitched all major, New York-based, network TV shows the chance to talk to New Jersey’s governor about the previous evening’s address. At the same time, it was a purposeful thrust of Christie into the national spotlight for the inevitable and anticipated discussion regarding the way forward for the Republican Party. Cleverly, Christie feigns a lack of interest in such discussions but never misses the opportunity to sell his “outsider” populism.
He then barnstorms the Garden State to make his agenda pitch directly to his constituents. You Tube-ready video will capture his every move, feeding Christie’s viral Internet presence that made him famous in the first place.
None of this was atypical media strategy for Christie’s team, with one notable exception: Governor Christie made his first appearance on Late Show With David Letterman.
You might have seen the show or a highlight of the Governor’s appearance. It was everywhere. In his “bit,” Christie pulls a doughnut out of his pocket in the middle of Letterman’s questions, takes a bite, gestures to Letterman to hand him a napkin. Letterman does. The audience is roaring with laughter. Christie says, “I didn’t know this was gonna be this long.”
Funny, yes. And Christie gets the credit for the joke. But I’ll bet money right now, Christie’s people didn’t come up with this gag. And this is what makes this an important moment. It is likely Christie’s staff told Letterman’s staff they were willing to have fun at Christie’s expense. Team Christie is well aware Letterman constantly tells fat jokes about the Governor. Letterman’s people wouldn’t have presumed to go this route unless Christie himself said, “Let’s do it. I’ll do a fat joke.”
Once Letterman’s team got the green light to have this kind of fun, it is likely the writers came up with the gag. Either way, Letterman knew it was coming. Hence the napkin being handed to him, just after the set-up from Dave, “Now, I’ve made many jokes about your weight … ” (That’s Christie’s cue to pull the doughnut and take a bite.)
Christie and his team “get it.” They’re media savvy and know the power of the laugh. They also know to ingratiate themselves to Letterman by allowing him permission to continue the fat jokes rather than having Christie get combative or defensive about them. This forever makes Christie “fun-loving,” and a welcome guest on that show.
Letterman will never really be too hard on him substantively again (if he ever was to begin with). In fact, if Letterman’s still on the air in 2016, Christie will have Letterman in his pop-culture pocket. Along with Jon Stewart and Jimmy Fallon.
Last Tuesday, during the Republican response to President Obama’s State of the Union address, Florida senator Marco Rubio took an awkward moment to reach off camera in mid-sentence and swig a small bottle of water.
Many of Rubio’s rivals laughably debated this as some kind of fatal political moment for the Senator. It was odd, no doubt. Parody-worthy? You bet. Saturday Night Live did so (I predicted they would on Twitter moments after it happened).
The now infamous sip led to another critical moment in self-deprecating, quick-witted, personable outreach from a Republican politician to his audience. Minutes after his address had ended, Twitter erupted with jokes about the moment. Responding within minutes, Team Rubio tweeted a simple picture of the very water bottle he made nationally famous moments earlier.
The following morning, Rubio made the morning network news show rounds and had good-natured laughs with each interviewer about the incident. Within 24 hours, Rubio’s political action committee created the “Rubio Water Bottle” for sale online. As of this writing, Team Rubio has raised more than $100,000 off his “politically fatal” drink.
One additional, notable moment of Rubio cracking the pop-culture scene came during a discussion of his music tastes. Specifically, his respect—yes, respect—for hip-hop music.
“In some ways, rappers are like reporters. In particular, at that time, from the West Coast, it was a lot of reporting about what life was like … so the ’90s was a time when this was really pronounced. You had gang wars, racial tension, and they were reporting on that,” Rubio told the blog Buzzfeed.
Am I holding Christie and Rubio up as GOP standard-bearers across the board on every issue? Nope. That’s not the point. I’m simply sharing with you how they’re successfully navigating the pop-culture water at a time most Republicans are hiding at home watching the jokes hurled their way.
A doughnut, a water bottle, and hip-hop references won’t win an election, but if Republicans don’t understand why they’re important moments, they’ll continue to struggle.