When David Cameron set out to transform the Tory Party in Britain, one of his first triumphs was a trip to the Arctic for a famous photo-op hugging a Husky. In one fell swoop, he convinced voters that he cared about the environment—and, perhaps more important, loved dogs.
Here in the United States, the GOP would do well to study Cameron's playbook. As Slatecontributor Michael Schaeffer writes in his new book, One Nation Under Dog, six out of 10 American households have pets—and 37 percent have dogs. The show-stopping arrival of the Obamas' new puppy, Bo, proves once again that politics is dog ownership by other means. The limited-edition Bo Beanie Baby commands up to $140 on eBay. According to a new Fox News poll, most Americans believe Bo will have a longer leash than the vice president.
During the 2000 campaign, my friend and former colleague Elaine Kamarck told the Boston Globe, "The Democratic Party is going to take back God this time." (In retrospect, we would have settled for Florida.) Among its many challenges in 2012, the Republican Party will first have to take back dogs. In November, Bill Kristol wrote that what troubled him most on Election Night wasn't Obama's margin of victory but his pledge to get his daughters that new puppy. Recalling images of FDR with Fala and Reagan with Rex, Kristol wrote, "Maybe a realignment could be coming."
Some Republicans, alas, did not get the memo. Mitt Romney will never live down his family vacation with an Irish setter strapped to the roof. Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum's career began to unravel after his from-nowhere comment that marriage is not "man on dog."
This past week, another Republican who should know better—Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty—got on the wrong side of man's best friend. In an effort to warn dog owners about the dangers of mulch made from cocoa bean shells, the Minnesota legislature recently passed Moose's Law, named for a 105-pound chocolate Labrador who died of a cocoa-mulch overdose. Last Friday, Pawlenty vetoed the bill as "an example of legislative overreach." Just what the party of Sarah Palin needs—another Moose killer.
The dog-bites-mulch debate did make the Minnesota legislature look a bit ridiculous. The debate firmly established two things: Labs don't know what's good for them, and neither do many Republicans. One Republican legislator complained that the bill would lead to warning labels on Cocoa Puffs; another said dogs couldn't read the warnings even if they were written in English. Other Republicans were more sympathetic: One legislator's dog got sick from eating mulch, while another had to put to sleep a cat who ate an Easter lily. Constituents chimed in as well—including a Star-Tribune reader whose dog ate a live Poinsettia, then a silk one.
Pawlenty and other opponents of mulch reform cited industry statistics that even though chocolate is toxic to dogs, cocoa mulch poses no great risk because 98 percent of dogs don't like it. Oddly enough, they could use the same defense for Bush's economic policies: We have nothing to fear from conservative ideas because the country no longer can stomach them.
The governor may be right that Minnesota has bigger problems than chocolate Labs eating chocolate mulch. And to be sure, the first three letters of Pawlenty's name must be worth something in the canine world. But his dilemma is a reflection of what happens to a down-on-its-luck party with lots of frustration and no good options: No matter what your intentions, the world assumes you're looking for a dog to kick.
Luckily for the GOP, at least one potential 2012 hopeful is a pro-dog Republican who wants a big dog party. When the Bush-Cheney administration was defending the use of torture last spring, Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman did what little he could to soften his party's image: by signing a law to punish the torture of dogs and cats as a felony. The bill was named Henry's Law, after a Chihuahua that was burned in an oven in a domestic dispute. "As we treat our animals, so do we treat our fellow human beings," Huntsman said.
Merriam-Webster defines huntsman as "a person who manages the hunt and looks after the hounds." At the moment, that could double as a description of what it takes to lead the Republican Party. The governors' wing—led by Huntsman, Bobby Jindal, and Charlie Crist—wants a kinder, gentler GOP. For conservative diehards, by contrast, it's all about the hunt, so much so that even Republican strategists listen to Dick Cheney and wonder, why is this man growling?
Of course, Republicans will never fix their image problem until they fix their ideas problem. Hugging a Husky won't help if you still want to melt the polar ice caps. For all their talk of Joseph Schumpeter and creative destruction, conservatives have yet to realize the thrill of intellectual freedom that their current plight affords. It ought to be rejuvenating, like a new puppy.
After all, political bankruptcy is a once-in-a-lifetime chance to shed crushing liabilities and start over from scratch. As George Orwell wrote in Down and Out in Paris and London, the greatest liberation is having nothing left to lose: "One talks so often of going to the dogs. And here are the dogs, and you are among them, and you can bear it."
So by all means, Republican Party, get an idea. And in the meantime, get a dog. It's a great way to make friends, and good company even when you don't.