BADGE ENGINEERING

Posted in Election 2010 on May 18th, 2009 by Ed

It's odd that conservatives are so eager to see the American auto industry go belly-up. These same right-wingers are employing one of the strategies most directly responsible for Detroit's demise in their own (endless) search for a new savior.

To make a long story very short, "badge engineering" is a term used to describe auto manufacturers' strategy of selling the same vehicle under several different brands with only minor cosmetic changes like different hubcaps, upholstery, paint colors, or clip-on plastic bumpers. Rocket scientists like Roger Smith decided that a great way for manufacturers operating multiple brand names (i.e., the Big Three) to save money would be to design just a few vehicles and then sell five versions of each. For example, the recent Chevy TrailBlazer has been or is sold as the Saab 9-7x, Isuzu Ascender, GMC Envoy, Buick Rainier, and Oldsmobile Bravada. Despite many promises from Detroit to quit this ridiculous practice it continues unabated (see the "new" Pontiac G3 and note the odd similarity to the Chevy Aveo, which is itself a badge-engineered copy of the Daewoo Kalos).

Two problems with this strategy stand out. First, it demonstrates naked contempt for customers' intelligence. Americans may not be terribly bright, but only the most knuckleheaded failed to realize that the Buick, Chevy, Olds, and Pontiac dealers (or Ford/Lincoln/Mercury, Chrysler/Plymouth/Dodge) were selling the same damn thing. Second, it only works with good products. When the Ford Taurus was the best-selling car in America it certainly didn't hurt Mercury dealers to offer an identical car, the Mercury Sable. But badge engineering can turn a bad product into a disastrous one. When GM released the ghastly Chevy Uplander minivan it didn't have one flop on its hands; it had four, including the identical Buick Terrazza, Saturn Relay, and Pontiac Montana. This concept escapes the Big Three, who think there are consumers who look at a bad Chevy and say "Gee, I'd buy that steaming pile of shit…if only it had a Pontiac badge on the hood!"

This is where the GOP should pay attention.

South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford is term-limited and stepping down in 2010 to devote his full energy to a kamikaze run at the White House in 2012. His likely replacement, State Rep Nikki Haley, has an excellent chance to win both the primary and an uncompetitive general election in 2010. You heard it here first: if she wins in 2010 it is only a matter of time until conservatives beat the drum for Haley to run for President herself in 2012 or 2016. She'll be their next next big thing. Why? Is Haley a brilliant politician? Of course not. The reason is that prior to marriage and politics Nikki Haley was Nimrata Randhawa, the daughter of Sikh immigrants. Yes, this run-of-the-mill winger is young, female, AND a minority – with a nice, anglicized name that won't frighten away old white people! Sweet jumping Jesus, it's like the heavens parted and God sent Republicans Their Own Obama! Sure, they said the same thing about Palin and Jindal, but Haley is really going to be it!

Image Hosted by ImageShack.us
The 2012 Republican (optional equipment shown; MSRP $21,499)

The GOP has been selling America the same product for 30 years, an all-purpose generic conservative I'll call the UniCon (not to be confused with Unicron or the unicorn). UniCon worships Reagan, regurgitates supply-side economic theories (name-dropping Hayek and Friedman at regular intervals) and relentlessly campaigns for "lower taxes" and "cutting spending." UniCon loves the military, doesn't negotiate with Our Enemies like the fruity liberals do, and generally believes in re-living the Cold War. UniCon has the predictable hard-right positions on "social issues," solemnly talks of "values" and "life," and mentions "God" like he or she has Tourette's. UniCon rails against the stock culture war Enemies List: unions, the media, academia, activist judges, the ACLU, "inner cities," Hollywood, secularism, socialism, tinpot dictators, Big Government, instant replay, the Yeti, and fluoridated water.

Newt Gingrich is an example of the UniCon. People don't like Newt Gingrich. His career on the national stage was brief and now he's wringing an income out of the right-wing media/foundation circuit while deluding himself into thinking that he's getting back into politics. The GOP sees that he lacks broad appeal – and they conclude that the packaging is the problem. See, they know that you like everything he stands for, so rather than questioning the message they simply search for a new way to deliver it. They're quite convinced that you're saying "Gee, I'd definitely vote for that…if only it had tits." Hence every person the party offers up as a savior is, in any meaningful way, indistinguishable from Newt Gingrich.

At a complete loss for new ideas, the GOP badge engineers the same candidate repeatedly. You want one with a cowboy hat? Here's George W. Bush. Want one sans penis? Sarah Palin! Do you prefer black? Take this Steele fellow for a test drive. If black isn't your color, how about a less threatening minority, perhaps Indian? You'll love Bobby Jindal. Are a traditionalist looking for the no-frills model in classic white? Have a gander at Mitch Daniels or Tim Pawlenty. Would you prefer your white guy with a drawl? Mark Sanford or Haley Barbour should do! We've got a different (looking) candidate for every conceivable taste! Mormons. Catholics. Jews. Senators. Governors. Businessmen. Hollywood celebrities. Retired athletes. Young. Old. Fat. Slim. Bald. Hirsute. We can even offer exotic custom jobs like "young Indian-American female Governor." How's that for customer service?

Once you get past the different exteriors, of course, these candidates are carbon copies of one another. They are UniCon. Like their counterparts in the corporate offices of the Big Three, the GOP is convinced that the underlying product is great and the public is simply waiting to find a body style that it likes. Stupidity is stubbon; even bankruptcy hasn't convinced the auto manufacturers of their errant ways. So I'm bullish on the number of electoral drubbings the GOP can endure before the light finally goes on.