The Washington Times

The prospect of a 108th Congress with Sen. Frank Lautenberg and Sen. Walter Mondale in it is really too delicious to contemplate. We will have reached a new stage, I think, in the phenomenon of political branding.

Brand names in American politics are nothing new: Ask the Adamses. But nowadays, it seems, brand names have become increasingly important in selecting candidates for office.

It is difficult to imagine the election of President George W. Bush outside the context of the previous election of President George H.W. Bush. Likewise, Sen. Hillary Clinton fundamentally presupposed President Bill Clinton. In both cases, the name opened the door.

There is more to the story than that, of course, and there is always a price to pay for obtaining entree by means of a brand name: One’s own abilities tend to be discounted. In fact, George W. Bush is a very good politician, with a more natural gift for it than his father; whether the son learned the arts from the father and then surpassed his teacher, or whether the son learned and benefited from the mistakes of the father, there is no sense of diminishment in the intergenerational continuity of the Bush brand.

Likewise, Hillary Clinton had a complicated challenge in her carpetbagger bid for a New York Senate seat. She would not have been in a position to run were she not first lady.

On the other hand, she had to run a campaign that established her as a worthy candidate in her own right – in other words, not on the basis of her first ladyness, in which capacity she was admired by some and despised by others.

Nevertheless, the brands “Bush” and “Clinton” were in some sense key. The brands engaged people, made them willing to give these particular politicians a serious look, and in some cases [though by no means uniformly] garnered the politicians an initial positive impression.

This is something money can’t buy – or rather, this is something that only money can substitute for. If the No. 1 “type” in politics today is the brand-name candidate, the No. 2 “type” must be the millionaire able to finance his own campaign. The idea is that with enough money, a nobody can become a somebody at no great expense to the party – without, that is, the diversion of large sums of funds raised from contributors to do the job of raising the candidate’s profile. In this scenario, the self-financed candidate is in charge of putting herself on the map – of becoming a credible [if not yet successful] new brand. At that point, the party will weigh in with support. But both these types serve as an indication of how high the initial hurdle is and how valuable it is for the party to have someone who can jump it.

There are other ways to solve the brand problem. Celebrity in another field of endeavor is a distinct possibility, as Ronald Reagan demonstrated. Indeed, the prospect of an Arnold Schwarzenegger run for governor of California four years hence has many Republicans there drooling. And recall the suggestion, attributed to Bill Clinton, that Bruce Springsteen would make a fine replacement for Robert Torricelli in the U.S. Senate race in New Jersey.

The latter example, however, points to a problem: namely, how few famous people want to run for the Senate or other public office. Mr. Springsteen is, after all, Bruce Springsteen. I’m not sure I can entirely imagine what that’s like, but it seems implausible that any yawning chasm of desire remaining in one’s soul under those circumstances would find fulfillment in being Sen. Springsteen [and indeed, Mr. Springsteen knocked the idea down rather quickly].

This in turn takes us to the cases of the once and perhaps future Sens. Mondale and Lautenberg. The message they have received from the political insiders is this: Now is the time for all good brands to come to the aid of their party. In extremis – with the tragic death of Sen. Paul Wellstone and control of the Senate hanging in the balance – the Mondale brand in Minnesota is simply too important to retire. Likewise, the Lautenberg brand in New Jersey.

Bill Bradley did resist blandishments to come out of retirement in New Jersey; could this be because the former NBA star with intellectual pretensions has a sense of himself as bigger than his political brand? In any case, Mr. Mondale and Mr. Lautenberg are their political brands. Who could blame them for heeding the call, coming out one more time? A campaign of a few weeks’ or even days’ duration from a standing start that you actually stand a good chance of winning? Short of the White House, what could be a better capper to the career of a working politician than to have developed sufficient brand loyalty to step in at the last moment and win?