Commentary: How the GOP is Kinda Like J.C. Penney

Jun 28, 2016

Credit Courtesy CNBC

My wife and I like to shop at JC Penney.  I know, I know – we are not hipsters but, hey, they have great sales.  Penney has been through a lot lately.  Former Apple executive Ron Johnson was hired in 2010 to “update the brand.”  After eighteen months of wrecking the brand, Johnson was fired and the old president rehired.  JC Penney is still struggling as a retailer.

I thought of this as I have watched the increasingly bizarre events unfolding in the presidential campaign.  Every day it becomes clearer that Donald Trump’s campaign is struggling.  He has not raised much money and does not have a plan to raise the amount of money required to be competitive.  He has not begun to organize the ground game necessary for fall voter contacts and to get out the vote on Election Day in November.

But he certainly is changing the brand of the Republican Party.

What does this have to do with JC Penney?  Last spring the students in my Presidency class at Columbia College discussed the many roles of an American President.  The most visible roles are commander in chief and ceremonial head of state but he is also chief diplomat, chief magistrate, chief bureaucrat and chief legislator.  No wonder every recent president but Ronald Reagan went grey during their presidencies, and it is assumed that President Reagan had help with his hair color.

The American President has one more role – that of chief of his political party.  He is expected to campaign for fellow party members, offer a vision for policy, raise money – the list goes on.

Party chief is also the only role that is performed before a president takes office.  The nominee of the party that is out of power, as Republicans currently are, becomes the de facto party chief as soon as he wraps up the nomination.   So right now – today – Donald Trump is the GOP’s party chief.  And, in the eyes of many, he is wrecking the brand, like Ron Johnson wrecked the JC Penney brand.

The JC Penney board of directors could – and did – fire Ron Johnson.  The Republican National Committee has a fiduciary responsibility to the party at large like the JC Penney board had a fiduciary responsibility to Penney shareholders. 

But the RNC can’t “fire” Donald Trump.  At the convention they could make life difficult for him and pretty much complete the demolition of the party for the 2016 cycle.  But they can’t fire him.  And even if they could, whom would they “hire” to replace him?

Republicans are in a real mess.

Dr. Terry Smith is a political science professor at Columbia College, and a regular commentator for KBIA’s Talking Politics