Growing up in the South means that you were raised on Coca-Cola. We don’t just call Coke, “Coke,” we call every soda made “Coke.” We believe Coke tastes better in a glass bottle than it does in a can. Every true Southerner has tried the unique concoction of drinking Coke with peanuts (in the bottle). We love Coca-Cola.
However, in the early 1980’s, Pepsi starting outselling Coke. After a few years of hand wringing and worry, on April 23, 1985, the Coca Cola Company—and this is still emotionally straining as I write this–abandoned its century old formula and introduced—sigh—“New Coke.” Oh sure, the consultants said it would be a great idea. The experts believed Coke needed to make a change to compete with Pepsi. Even the polling of focus groups told Coke executives that America would overwhelmingly prefer that new, sweeter mixture. It flopped.
The public outcry was immediate. Protests were organized. Op-ed pieces were written. Hundreds of thousands of angry calls were received by the company. One former Coke executive told me that the new formula “was the best worst decision an American company had made.” The experts, consultants and polling were shockingly wrong. Less than three months after New Coke’s introduction, the company announced the return of the original nectar of the gods in July 1985.
Later, it was determined that notwithstanding the taste tests and the science, the company underestimated the visceral impact such a change would have on its loyal generations of drinkers. They had kicked out the old family dog in favor of a new puppy. Coke was a constant through wars, civil unrest, changing economies, a changing culture, and according to the commercials, Santa Claus’s beverage of choice. The company learned that you just couldn’t change who you are.
Yet, that’s what many in the GOP want to do. The experts, consultants and strategists are wringing their hands and gnashing their teeth trying to come up with the New GOP that can beat the Democrats in the next four years. The problem is that we’ve allowed some of the same people tinker with GOP Classic for a decade; and there are not enough folks who remember the original formula.
Republicans made their first significant alteration to their successful recipe when they abandoned their healthy skepticism and economic concerns of existing entitlement programs by managing the largest overhaul and expansion of Medicare with the creation of Medicare Part D. Not only did we seem to forget we were the party of smaller federal government, but we also seemed to forget our belief in the free market economy. A Republican Congress prohibited the Federal government from negotiating discounts with drug companies in this program.
Apparently, this was a subtle enough change that those loyal to GOP Classic didn’t revolt.
Some time passed, and the “leaders” of the party of Lincoln decided they needed to tinker again. Somewhere a long the way, “they” decided the GOP needed to adopt the language of the Democrats. Very subtly, Republican candidates began referring to the “middle class.” This was akin to Coke abandoning “It’s the real thing,” or “I’d like to buy the world a Coke,” for whatever ad campaign Pepsi was running at the time. The moment my party started to referring to the “middle class,” we gave up on a core belief and gave credibility to the artificial class warfare of the Democrats. Sure America has low- middle- and high- income earners, but the moment we acknowledge a class, we give up on the truism that we live in a country that with hard work and a refusal to quit you can be poor today, rich tomorrow, and (after you pay your taxes) somewhere in the middle next week.
Again, nobody seemed to care.
Our candidates running for federal offices then started promising that they had plans to create jobs. This was like trying to swap a Coke for a Diet Pepsi—it just didn’t taste right. GOP Classic was when Reagan told us the government was not the solution to our problem but rather government is the problem. Apparently the New GOP is trying to sell the intellectually confounding concept that the Democratic government is not the solution to our problem, rather, a REPUBLICAN government is the solution to our problem. That’s like telling folks that drinking a diet shake WITH their meal will help them lose weight. This idiocy has gotten so bad that some GOP “strategists”—whatever they are—recently blamed the loss of Romney’s presidential bid, in part, on the success of our Republican Governors, observing that states with GOP governors were doing better economically hurt Romney’s message. Apparently there is no room for Federalism and State’s rights in the new GOP formula.
These job promises may have been that one ingredient too many. The culmination of this experimentation has created a situation where the people who have always believed in the party that ended slavery, got our nation out of Vietnam, and reminded us that we are a “Shining City on a Hill,” no longer recognize what they are drinking.
The post mortems of the Romney loss will continue ad nauseam. The critics, experts, Tea Partiers, moderates, fiscal conservatives, social conservatives, strategists, talking heads, contributors, pundits, consultants, Evangelicals, Right-wingers, Catholics and Mormons all have their particular issues which they believe will be the silver bullet to “fix” the GOP. In dealing with the fiscal cliff, we have so few Republicans in Congress now who have ever actually run a small business (or remember when they did); they struggle to articulate solutions to problems they have never personally experienced. (The Democrats have fewer still but this is not about them).
None of these will work until our party remembers the formula for GOP Classic. We believe in a smaller federal government. We believe in strong state and local governments. We believe in the free market. We believe in the individual. And we believe in freedom. Everything else is marketing. That’s the real, real thing.
Patrick Millsaps is the former Chief of Staff for Newt Gingrich’s presidential campaign and can occasionally be seen on CNN as a commentator. He is a partner with the Hall Booth Smith lawfirm.