New toppings may not cut it

NEW TOPPINGS MAY NOT CUT IT…. You may have seen the commercials on television — Domino’s Pizza is launching something of an overhaul, conceding that most of its customers had concluded that their product wasn’t very good. The ads show company leaders acknowledging their missteps and vowing to make systemic improvements (improved sauce, better crust, tastier cheese, real toppings, etc.). The goal is for Domino’s to reinvent itself.

In a National Review piece, Jonah Goldberg suggests the Republican Party would be wise to follow the pizza chain’s lead.

Domino’s says that the American palate has improved, and they want to update their recipe to take account of that fact. The appeal of the campaign should be obvious: honesty. Domino’s admits they lost their way, and they want a second chance. They’re confronting the criticism head-on rather than denying it.

Obviously, the analogy to the GOP isn’t perfect. For example, last I checked, Domino’s didn’t get bogged down in an unpopular war.

But the GOP’s troubles over the last decade have a lot to do with the fact that Americans didn’t stop liking what the Republican party is supposed to deliver. They stopped liking what the GOP actually delivered.

The piece goes on to argue that the GOP shouldn’t move closer to the American mainstream — it was George W. Bush, Goldberg argues, who “abandon[ed] conservative policies in order to be more popular” — which strikes me as pretty silly advice.

But the comparison was nevertheless interesting to me. Misguided, but interesting.

At first blush, the parallels might seem compelling. Domino’s screwed up; Republicans screwed up. Domino’s target audience (customers) went elsewhere (competing pizzerias); Republicans’ target audience (voters) went elsewhere (Democrats). Domino’s intends to change direction, improve their product, and win back its audience; Republicans can change direction, improve its product, and hope to win back its audience.

See how easy this is?

Well, no. I don’t mean to strain the metaphor here, but the qualitative differences matter. Domino’s saw the market research and concluded, “Hmm, people seem to hate our pizza. Maybe we should make it better.” Republicans saw the election results and concluded, “Hmm, voters to seem to hate what we’re offering. Maybe we should go to war against moderates and move even further off the right-wing cliff.”

Reinvention is trickier than it sounds when you’re a failed, discredited political party whose spectacular debacles are still burdening the country. Let’s not forget, last year, a wide variety of heavy hitters in the Republican Party — Cantor, Romney, McCain, Jeb Bush, Gingrich, Palin, Jindal, Barbour — launched a major rebranding initiative. It was a total fiasco — it held one outside-the-Beltway event, which just happened to be inside the Beltway, and was never heard from again.

Domino’s can shift direction and offer customers something new. Republicans like their old direction just fine and have no policy agenda to speak of, other than the same tired and failed ideas that they’ve been pushing for years. Indeed, consider exactly what Republicans would be doing right now if they were the majority party. It doesn’t take much of an imagination — they’d be cutting taxes, removing regulations and safeguards that protect American workers and consumers, moving closer to a war with Iran, and probably trying to drill the coasts for oil.

Domino’s is capable of a major overhaul, which may or may not succeed. Republicans don’t even realize what went wrong, and have no idea what to do about it. You can put more tax cuts for millionaires and endless war in a pretty box with a fancy bow, but it’s still just Bush/Cheney warmed over.

It’s worth emphasizing that this may not matter. If voters believe Democrats haven’t done enough to clean up the Republicans’ messes, GOP candidates can and probably will thrive, whether they reinvent themselves or not. This is made easier by a motivated right-wing base and a frustrated progressive base. There’s no rule that Republicans have to grow up, offer a coherent vision for the future, and take policymaking seriously in order to reap electoral rewards.

But to convince the country Republicans are offering something new, and are prepared to avoid their failures of the very recent past, Republicans would have to actually offer something new and demonstrate that they recognize their failures of the recent past. There’s no evidence at all that the GOP is even interested in such an approach.