Politics & Policy

The Beginner’s Pledge

This commonsense document will provide a sheet anchor for Republicans should they take power.

The agenda item calling for pushing the elderly into the streets doesn’t appear in the House GOP’s new “Pledge to America.” It must have been an oversight, or a last-minute printing error.

That didn’t keep Speaker Nancy Pelosi from decrying just such a scheme in the making. The Pledge promises to “turn Social Security from a guaranteed benefit into a guaranteed gamble,” the speaker thundered, reverting to a line that was already ragged and tired about 50 years ago. Majority Whip James Clyburn said the Pledge’s health-care provisions would visit a “plague” on the nation’s families — whether of frogs, locusts,or livestock disease, he didn’t specify.

Did Republicans err by giving Democrats a target in an election already swinging their way? That might be true if it weren’t a commonsense document closer to the new political center than anything on offer from its critics. In warning of the ravages that will be visited upon the nation by promises “to protect our entitlement programs for today’s seniors and future generations” and to repeal an unwieldy, unpopular health-care law, Democrats will look unhinged, desperate, and wedded to the fiscally incontinent status quo. In other words, they’ll look the way they do now — only more so.

Mark Twain said that history doesn’t repeat, but rhymes. Lately, American politics has been playing out in iambic pentameter. Riding a wave of disgust with a new liberal president, House Republicans unloosed 1994’s “Contract with America,” a minimalist document promising votes on popular measures like welfare reform and a balanced-budget amendment. Democrats poured on unrelenting scorn and warnings of doom, and came up empty. In his memoir, Bill Clinton regretted this unsophisticated and ineffectual Democratic tack.

In the end, though, the Contract wasn’t decisive in 1994, and the Pledge won’t be in 2010. The most important word of the election is simple and pungent in any language: “no,” “nyet,” “non,” “nein,” “nei,” “nej.” Voters wanted someone to say it to Pres. Barack Obama, and Republicans did. Everything else is a footnote.

The ultimate import of the Pledge is as a preemptive act of governing. If the chants of “Speaker Boehner” outside the event announcing the document were premature, they weren’t far-fetched. The Pledge will provide a sheet anchor for Republicans should they take power in a vertiginous sweep, and does voters the civic favor of giving them a preview, in some specificity, of the party’s initial priorities.

The preamble sets out a new iteration of Republicanism. In 1994, the Contract had a Perotista flavor and emphasized first-day institutional reforms of Congress. In 2000, George W. Bush unveiled “compassionate conservatism” as an implicit surrender to big government. In its evocations of the country’s founding documents, the Pledge identifies itself with a constitutional conservatism determined to return government within its proper bounds.

The first step, of course, is resisting and unspooling the Obama agenda. This isn’t surprising, but neither is it nothing. In committing to return spending to pre-stimulus, pre-bailout levels, the Pledge promises a significant spending cut, as much as $1 trillion over ten years. If a Republican Congress were to manage only that rollback in its first year, it would deserve an honored place in the annals of limited government, which is sparse on federal spending reductions.

The Pledge hardly does the full tea party. But it includes versions of six of the ten items in the “Contract from America” formulated by tea-party groups with public input earlier this year, including specifying the constitutionality of every bill, instituting spending caps, repealing Obamacare, stopping tax increases, rejecting cap-and-trade, and encouraging energy production. On yet another item, House Republicans have separately promised to eschew earmarks. Seven out of ten ain’t bad.

The Pledge is forthright that it only represents a start, and a direction. Along with its agenda items, it includes data on our overwhelming fiscal challenges. The implicit choice it offers is beginning to grapple with them, or continuing to whistle in the dark.

Rich Lowry is editor of National Review. He can be reached via e-mail, comments.lowry@nationalreview.com. © 2010 by King Features Syndicate.

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