The Corner

Lessons Learned

As someone who was privileged to work closely with Newt Gingrich, Dick Armey, and their compatriots on the Contract with America in 1994, it has felt like Groundhog Day every day for the past few weeks. Individuals within the House Republican caucus jostled and jockeyed to have their favorite issue included or something objectionable excluded, and conservative issue groups buzzed the tower seeking acknowledgment of their own priorities (national security, marriage and family, etc.) — it all felt, to quote that great philosopher Yogi Berra, like “déjà vu all over again.”

Many forget that the Contract with America was, at the time, viewed by many as a strategic mistake. After all, there was a popular backlash against the Clinton health-care plan, tax increases, and social policies, many argued. Why mess it up by giving Democrats a target to shoot at? I debated Stan Greenberg, then Bill Clinton’s pollster, on a television show shortly before the election. He told me it was the dumbest thing the Republicans could have done, because now Clinton would be able to argue that as unhappy as voters were with him, the GOP agenda was too extreme and dangerous for seniors and children.

Fortunately, Gingrich and his lieutenants rejected this thinking and put forward a bold agenda that energized conservatives, intrigued and attracted independents, and extended a hand of fellowship to Perot voters (the tea-party activists of the ’90s). Whether the Contract played a role in the election of the first GOP Congress in 40 years is a debatable proposition. What is not in dispute is it was a seminal document that provided a roadmap for the GOP insurgents who were coming out of the wilderness and pulling the levers of legislative power for the first time in two generations.

Indeed, my only criticism then and now is that there didn’t seem to be second act. After the first 100 days and the flurry of floor votes on the ten items in the Contract, the GOP fountainhead of ideas seemed to be a spent volcano. The lesson: Next time, make sure the agenda envisions 100 months, not 100 days.

That is why the House Republicans’ Pledge to America is so encouraging. It’s big, brash, and bold, calling for everything from disarming Iran and winning the wars and the subsequent peace in Iraq and Afghanistan to repealing Obamacare. This is a tall order. Good. Governing is a marathon, not a sprint, and Republicans now grasp that reality.

In its initial portion, the Pledge is a negative document, calling for ending the Reid-Pelosi Congress and Barack Obama’s socialistic spending spree and government takeover of health care.

But it goes further, pledging to replace these with a conservative alternative that is friendly to hard-working families and small businesses.

Significantly, House Republicans rejected the false choice between tea-party issues like cutting spending and delimiting government and pro-family issues like honoring marriage and protecting unborn life. For some strange reason, the media and some in the GOP think the two agendas are incompatible. Nothing could be further from the truth. Indeed, the exact opposite is true. Pro-family candidates are the most likely to be fiscal conservatives, and tea-party candidates are most likely to be pro-life. Witness Sharron Angle, Joe Miller, Marco Rubio, and Christine O’Donnell. How come every time we scratch a tea-party candidate we find a social conservative and a person of deep faith? Could it be that the notion of limiting government and maximizing freedom presupposes a citizenry animated by virtue, faith, and reliance on God? That’s certainly what the Founders believed. How refreshing that the House GOP agrees.

The GOP agenda embraces time-honored values like traditional marriage and ending taxpayer-funded abortion as well as lower taxes and reduced spending. The message is unmistakable: We will not be divided by a false choice between fiscal responsibility and strong families. We will fight for both, and indeed we must do both if we are to restore America’s promise.

 – Ralph Reed is author of the new book The Confirmation.

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