« Are You What You Eat? Is that all? | Main | Parricide at the CIA »

The Republicans Do Have Bic Ideas


Now that the conventional wisdom happens to coincide with the reality that it is the Republicans who have no Ideas, don’t think for a second that the Republicans aren’t dealing with the problem. Yes, just like liberals, they’ve got their own rich internal debate about finding the deep purpose and public philosophy that will renew their political relevance.

But do they struggle with abstractions like "the common good." NO. They get down to practical things. And so today’s candidate for core conservative principle is:

Be like a really cheap pen.

I’m not joking. A really cheap pen, literally a throwaway Bic from the 1960s. Preferably one with the cap all chewed up and the ink exploded on the inside from going through the laundry.

This comes from RedState.com, where contributor Robert A. Hahn suggests a Harvard Business School case study as a parable for the Republican Party. This is not the stale VHS/Betamax parable, but involves the history of ballpoint pens. In the 1950s, Hahn says, Papermate invented the retractable ball point pen, which was a great success, the first inexpensive ballpoint. Then Bic (a French company) entered the market with the even cheaper 29 cent Bic pen. Papermate decided that it didn’t need to compete, because its niche was in the "medium-price pen market." Bic ate Papermate’s lunch because, according to Hahn, "it turned out there was no medium-price pen market." People either wanted fancy Cross pens or cheap-as-crap Bics, and Papermate should have competed with Bic in the low end.

How is this parable relevant to the Republican situation? Through that impeccable Harvard Business School/McKinsey Consulting logic that cost a few people their pensions, it proves that there is also no "medium vote market," and thus the Republicans must go where the action is -- to the far right.

There’s every indication that the "really cheap, crappy French pen" strategy is exactly what Karl Rove has in mind. We’ll let Harvard Business School assess the results next year.


Posted by Mark Schmitt on May 10, 2006 | Permalink


I think there's something to this, in the following sense:

The conventional wisdom holds that the great mass of voters are "in the middle" politically, as if Joe Q. Voter spent the same amount of time thinking about politics as Matt Yglesias or Grover Norquist but just happened to wind up squarely in the middle after due deliberation.

Perhaps the truth of the matter is that most voters just don't like politics, but nevertheless watch the news and vote because they feel they have some civil responsibility to do so. Accordingly, a carefully calibrated moderate position is actually going to be less popular with those voters than a simply stated but more extreme position, because the very process of explicating that carefully calibrated moderate position is going to make those "antipolitical" voters nauseous.

Take, for example, gay marriage. There are two "extreme" positions: "Marriage is between a man and a woman" and "People should get married if they want and the government should stay out of it." The antipolitical voter who hates hearing people fight about political issues may find either of these positions appealing because they end the discussion. Talking for fifteen minutes about the historical significance of marriage as balanced by the competing value of respecting the needs of gay people and why this makes civil unions an appealing moderate option will just make the antipoliticals unhappy with the person who is bothering on about this subject, regardless of how they might feel about the merits.

It seems to me that the Republicans have had great success in recent years appealing to antipolitical voters with simple messages -- some of which tend to be extreme -- while Democrats have had bad luck pushing positions that are more moderate but are hard to describe concisely.

None of this is to say that political positions that can be simply stated are better than positions that take more time to elaborate, but rather that there is no reason to assume that political positions will be favorably viewed for being moderate.

Posted by: alkali | May 11, 2006 9:55:04 AM

There's *something* to it -- I like your summary of a certain kind of potential voter as a person who just wants the discussion to end. sBut it only goes so far. People may want simple messages, but they don't feel comfortable with extremism -- not just yet, anyway. The Republicans have been successful because they've masked their extremism -- partly by making it seem like it's the Dems who are extreme or out of touch, and partly via "framing" (e.g., "tax relief," "states rights," "family values"). But the more explicitly they appeal to the base, the more the mask slips.

And then, too, it doesn't seem likely that Republicans can get away with proposing silly constitutional amendments while ignoring pesky real-world problems like health care, wage stagnation, mortgage foreclosures, huge deficits, rising gas prices, war in Iraq, and so on. Oh, and then there's the corruption . . .

Finally, I have to say, yet again, that it's a mistake to forget that the Democrats have not lost by very much in recent elections (and they didn't lose in 2000 until the Supreme Court weighed in). For way too long, Bush has succeeded by invoking 9/11 and hyping the terrorist threat to cover up all his incompetence, and appealing to the sort of patriotism that is based on labeling anyone who disagrees as a terrorist sympathizer, or enabler, or whatever. Obviously, the Dems haven't been very good in response -- but you know, it's all probably a lot harder than it looks, esp. if you're a Dem with even a teeny bit of integrity and/or the capacity to feel ashamed of yourself.

None of what I've just written means that I have any faith in the so-called moderate voter. Truth be told, I can't understand why people vote without paying attention.

Posted by: Mary | May 11, 2006 2:30:35 PM

I agree that my analysis is somewhat reductive. Still, to my mind, it would be good if the Democrats worried less about whether their proposals are sufficiently elaborated and well-thought-out to appeal to the "Cross" voter, and worried more about succinctly stating their principles in a fashion that appeals to the "Bic" voter.

In particular, it would be more helpful for the next Democratic presidential candidate to say, over and over, "Everyone in Germany has health insurance. Everyone in Japan has health insurance. Why doesn't everyone in America have health insurance?" than to craft a 15-point-plan explaining how you would cover more people and pay for it. You won't win the mandate to do anything by explaining details of legislation that you won't be able to pass without substantial modification anyway.

Posted by: alkali | May 11, 2006 4:27:04 PM

Yes! Wouldn't it be nice to hear that -- or even better, to hear a Dem candidate say something equally decisive and commonsensical about a foreign policy. On the other hand, references to foreign countries in our pathetically juvenile public discourse might be risky (good thing your ideal candidate didn't mention France.)

Posted by: Mary | May 11, 2006 6:40:33 PM

Mancur Olson points out in "Power and Prosperity," and probably in his major work, "The Logic of Collective Action," which I haven't read, that as individuals voters have almost no incentive to invest the time and effort it takes to become truly informed. He calls this "rational ignorance" and offers a semi-quantitative proof of the point. Basically, any one voter's share of the benefit of voting is so small that he or she can "rationally" make the choice to opt out and leave it to proxies to make his or her decisions. Olson does not defend this as a Good Thing but rather points out that it is very difficult for large groups to make efficient choices for a public good (and even a little tricky in small groups).

Posted by: William Ira Bennett | May 12, 2006 3:52:10 PM

Wow. It's true. Yes, there are medium voters, ones who don't work for campaigns but dutifully go to primaries and caucuses and watch the debate shows so they can make a carefully considered decision. They're not enough to make a viable market. Once Bics enter the market, the medium voter is as doomed as the writer who kinda likes a semi-crappy pen.

I've succumbed to this myself. I have one of the most medium Congressmen in the country: Jim Leach. I like Jim Leach. I've even bothered analyzing his voting record over the last few years, vote by vote, procedural ones too, because I didn't believe the Dem view that he's a sneaky good ol boy. He seemed to me too impractically thoughtful for that. And he's not sneaky in his votes; he's a remarkably consistent fair-play voter, reliably conservative on most money and security issues, reliably liberal on environmental, arts, personal liberties. Not a last-minute vote-switcher, either. Unfortunately, he's not there with 434 other fair-play deliberates, and I've had enough of pretending he is. So this year I'll do something I feel is a serious mistake, and pull the D lever. I would vote for a ferret in a shoebox over Leach, and that's a real shame.

Posted by: amy | May 12, 2006 4:37:43 PM

I don't think the importance of having a message you can fit onto bumper-stickers can be overstated. A detailed and nuanced policy doesn't have to necessitate a thorough and all-encompassing description (including footnotes). It isn't necessary to explain the complexities behind a universal health insurance program to every voter, when a statement like, "health insurance that's there when you need it, no matter what," gets the point across before the eyes begin to glaze.

A lot of democrats on the left dislike Joe Klein for a variety of perceived offenses. Yet one theme I took away from his latest book was the importance of clarity. Not necessarily in a philosophical, meaty way, but in the way your english teacher intended it to mean.

The Republicans managed this on a variety of levels, visually as well as verbally. Clinton was a masterl. Whether the Democrats are able to do the same only time will tell. The Republicans have even sold much of their policy in Democratic language, so the public isn't necessarily unresponsive. Perhaps the Dems just need to reclaim their style?

Posted by: Matthew Murphy | May 15, 2006 2:17:38 AM