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What's in a Name?

For Maryland's Democratic Gubernatorial Nominee and the Sitting President, Moniker is (Indispensable) Destiny

Michelle Gienow

By Tom Siebert | Posted 10/23/2002

I can't help but look at Kathleen Kennedy Townsend and feel Bushed.

Like W, she's got the ultimate in immediate name recognition, right down to that cutesy initial insignia, KKT. She's got the state party in a stranglehold but barely had to reach for it. She's got the knee-jerk voting coalition of special interests. She's got the Big Daddy.

Most of all, she's got the well-oiled political machine towing a (sometimes literally) sputtering candidacy toward the governor's mansion. Though our lieutenant governor had to suffer through some early off-roading mishaps, Townsend is nevertheless effectively following in the muddy tracks left by the motorcade of George W. Bush, who rode his family name to the driver's seat of Texas and then the presidency.

Face it: Without the matchless monikers, this preordained pair would have had no more chance in politics than Kiefer Sutherland or Sofia Coppola in Hollywood--a sad but particularly valid comparison, since everybody knows that nobody can do anything about the converging worlds of politics and show biz, where marketing and image trump quality and the truth.

But the political scions' similarities go considerably past their reliance on heritage for immediate credibility. Though their ideologies couldn't be more different, their situations are so similar it almost makes you wonder if there is a cosmic playbook for flawed but likable candidates whose greatest strength is legacy and the friends and cachet that accompany it.

Conventional wisdom tells us that, personally, both are amiable individuals and good company, with the excellent one-on-one social skills that are the result of blue-blood breeding. Despite a law degree for Townsend and an MBA for Bush, neither enjoys the reputation of being the brightest crayon in the Crayola box. Both garble the English language like a dictionary down the garbage disposal.

Neither Bush nor Townsend was elected to any office (or in Townsend's case, elected under her own power) before running for governor. Though this should in theory carry heavy negatives in regard to experience, it also left both novice candidates largely fingerprint free when it came to being linked to controversial or failed legislation.

In his 1994 gubernatorial campaign, Bush was able to pound incumbent Gov. Ann Richards all over the map thanks to Texas's floundering school systems. Townsend is likewise slapping Robert Ehrlich silly with issues that tie him up on a post with the Democrats' favorite scarecrow, Newt Gingrich, as well as various hard-right conservative causes.

The negative campaigning worked for W and is arguably working for KKT because both have more money than their opponents and boast the proven political machinery that can grind up the opposition while it keeps the dirt off the candidate's hands.

Bush squished Sen. John McCain in the Republican primary with misleading attack ads (many paid for by Ken Lay) and later used James "The Velvet Hammer" Baker to beat Florida's voters into submission. Townsend's people somehow persuaded the state's best and most charismatic politician in any party, Mayor Martin O'Malley, to stay out of a race he could have easily won, and maneuvered the supposedly wily Ehrlich into a hamstrung debate where he was ambushed into looking like an amateur.

The debate was Townsend's key moment, exactly as it was for Bush in his first race for governor and later for president. Low expectations led to victory. If you don't lose, you win, and if your opponent sighs or chides himself to death, it's all gravy.

These similarities between Townsend and Bush are more than coincidental. They're emblematic examples of how the marketing mentality has affected politics and the electorate.

The United States gets candidates like Townsend and Bush for the same reason dreck like Scooby-Doo clocks a $54 million opening weekend, people still watch E/R, and fans pay $250 to see the Rolling Stones.

The bottom line--and I'm not talking cliché, I mean literally the bottom line in business today--is that it all comes down to brand identity and recognition. It's why you see four different Law & Order programs on NBC. It's why Hollywood lives for the franchise picture--Star Wars, Austin Powers, James Bond, now Scooby and Spider-Man. It's why that new soda is called Vanilla Coke and not Vanilla Swig or anything else.

And it's why candidates like George W. Bush and Kathleen Kennedy Townsend inspire a lemminglike reaction to what is covertly marketed as the inherently deserving bloodlines of so-called American royalty (perhaps their "indispensable destiny," as Townsend inexplicably declared when announcing her candidacy?). JFK? RFK? KKT!

Marketers live and die for the established brand, increasingly so as the volume in the marketplace gets louder and the number of advertising options and competitors increase. When you have a successful brand, the consumer gets to make a shortcut in his or her head because it signals an innate awareness in the communal and individual consciousness about a particular product. So if you're trying to sell something, you're already halfway there. Plus, in a time of increasing uncertainty, the brand provides security. You know what you're getting, for better or for worse.

Of course, if you're selling a brand, you better be sure that any extension of the brand communicates a message that's not too dissimilar to the qualities that made the brand so appealing to begin with. If you break the promised bond with the consumer, the backlash can kill you. If you're going to call something "New Coke," it should taste better than the old Coke.

This is what almost snuffed the Kathleen Kennedy Townsend campaign early, in the same way her brother Max imploded last year when he had an inexplicable giggle fit while making a speech during his abortive run for Congress, followed by the revelation that he was once arrested for assaulting a cop in a tag-team match with his cousin (the now convicted murderer) Michael Skakel. That doesn't fly, not even in Massachusetts, for a Kennedy.

Because the Kennedy brand, in addition to signifying bastions of liberal integrity--civil rights, women's rights, gun control, you know the drill--promises the voting public galvanizing speakers with steely leadership skills and a taste for playful athletic activity, like touch football. They do not have giggle fits while speaking, nor do they assault cops. In KKT's case, they do not get pushed around by an anonymous functionary at the voting booth on primary day, or see a guy cross the goal line and exalt, "He made a football!", as she reportedly did during a Ravens playoff game last year.

When things like that happen, the brand name becomes an albatross, and even the dumbest voter doesn't need Lloyd Bentsen to tell them what's happening.

That's likely why the Kennedy Townsend campaign became the Townsend campaign soon after the primary. Instead of being an asset and affirmation, the brand affiliation became an affliction. Quickly, the posters and bumper stickers changed: townsend got bigger and kennedy got smaller. And, without the reflecting glare of the past, the candidate grew in stature, too.

Something similar happened to George W. Bush when he was running for president and falling badly behind in the polls leading up to the 2000 New Hampshire primary. The family machine miscalculated and pulled out all the stops, schlepping King George I and Bar all the way up to New England to defend the boy. Didn't work. He got bulldozed. The brand was defined by Dad and Mom, not the kid, and he was punished.

After that, for better or worse, it was all W on the stump. Not until he had the nomination sewn up did the folks reappear with any regularity. By then, W had proven himself to at least be a worthy extension of the Bush brand.

In the same way, Townsend has improved her candidacy by moving away from the Kennedy tag for a period and now running back to it when the time is right. Though she sacrificed her reputation as a nice lady since whacking Ehrlich at the debate, it showed her to have a backbone and be a reasonably passionate speaker, if not a particularly articulate one.

She's also been able to seize the sniper issue and use it to turn the conversation back around to the Kennedy legacy in a logical way that does not place her in a position for a familial comparison where she comes up short. Quite the opposite, in fact; it allows her to embrace the Kennedy identity in a way that no voter could possibly begrudge her.

In the end, like Bush for president, Townsend will likely win in a squeaker, though she won't need the courts. The end result will probably be something along the lines of the first Glendening/Sauerbrey race in 1994, which ended up a statistical tie--Parris Glendening triumphed by a scant 6,000 votes. That election also hinged on the gun issue, as Ellen Sauerbrey's ties to the National Rifle Association proved too unsettling for Marylanders.

Thanks to the sniper, that'll likely prove to be the case for Ehrlich, too. Despite the almost unanimous support of the business community and the secret desires of some Democratic officials, ultimately a majority of Marylanders will probably decide they just don't want a Republican running the state. They know that brand. They don't like it.

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