Opinion and Forefront

WAGNER: Lugar's 'broken brand' began with negative ad

April 14, 2012

Jennifer WagnerThree decades ago, portable cassette players revolutionized the music industry.

I remember when I got my first Walkman, and I remember thinking there would never be anything better than popping in a tape and fast-forwarding to my favorite song.

Then came the compact discs that now reside in boxes in our attic, supplanted over the past decade by the online downloads and services that now consume our hard drives, iPods and bandwidth.

You can still find portable cassette players for sale, but the product is largely outmoded in today’s marketplace, an electronic relic that would be most comfortable snuggled up next to the vintage turntable in our basement.

The death of the portable cassette player is a typical story of product obsolescence: Something new dominates the marketplace for a time but is eventually phased out when something even newer takes its place.

No one is angry that the Walkman isn’t around any more. It just isn’t. If anything, we experience a touch of wistful nostalgia when we look back on those decades and our younger selves.

It feels very different when a product implodes. Think Crystal Pepsi and New Coke. Or in the case of exploding products, consider the Ford Pinto.

The phenomenon is sometimes referred to as a broken brand, and it’s precisely what’s happened to U.S. Sen. Richard Lugar.

A year ago, I penned a column about Lugar’s reputation as a statesman, a moderate Republican who shaped this town as a young public servant and has since developed a rock star reputation in foreign affairs and nuclear nonproliferation circles.

For decades, that had been Lugar’s brand, and for decades, he won election after election with little effort and nominal opposition.

Then came opposition from within.

State Treasurer Richard Mourdock, a darling of the Tea Party movement, pushed Lugar to the right, forcing him to publicly embrace positions he might previously have adopted but did not much discuss.

Mourdock seized on Lugar’s moderate stances as un-Republican, making it impossible for him to maintain any allegiance to voters in the middle.

Finally, Lugar did something he hadn’t done in all the years I’ve existed on this planet: He launched a negative television ad.

It was the day his brand officially died.

Reporters tweeted their surprised reactions, and the media coverage focused on it as a pivot point in the campaign.

Such proclamations were, of course, grossly exaggerated. A brand is built and sustained over time, and it’s not often ruined overnight. But, oh, what a difference the past year has made.

In addition to his rightward shift, Lugar has ham-handedly handled some publicity traps that could easily have been avoided, chiefly the nagging questions about his Indiana residency. (He has not owned a home here since 1977, but he continued to vote from that old address until a recent legal settlement permitted him to re-register at a family farm he once described as “rustic” and said he could not truthfully vote from because he didn’t live there.)

With the primary quickly approaching, Lugar has trotted out a series of establishment Republicans to bolster his reputation, all while engaging in a brutal air war with his GOP opponent.

A recent poll showed him clinging to a single-digit primary lead that’s within the margin of error.

Insiders and political pundits, especially those in this media market, have repeatedly expressed their surprise that this could be the case.

They ask: How can Dick Lugar be in danger of losing to a Tea Party candidate? He’s a senior statesman! He’s beloved by Hoosiers everywhere! A national treasure!

Was.

He was all those things.

Right up until the moment he broke his own brand to compete in the political fight of his life.

I don’t know what will happen on May 8, but I do know independent voters don’t like extreme politicians any more than average consumers liked transparent colas.

And once the brand is broken, it’s nearly impossible to put back together.•

Wagner is a lifelong Indianapolis resident who served as deputy director of public affairs at the National Nuclear Security Administration. Send comments on this column to ibjedit@ibj.com.

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