Magazine | February 8, 2010, Issue

Contractual Obligations

(Brad Markel/Getty)
A plan to win — and to govern

The smart money is on the Re­publicans’ making big gains in the House, the Senate, and governorships this fall, but not taking control of either chamber of Con­gress. That’s where the smart money was at the start of 1994, too, and Repub­licans took control of both a few months later. In the spring of 2006 few people thought the Democrats would take the Senate as well as the House that year. They did.

Republicans are doing sufficiently well that their objective this fall has to be at least to retake the House. There is no point in their setting their sights any lower, and announcing that objective will motivate conservative voters and activists in a way that a lesser goal, such as gaining 25 seats, will not. A simple majority in the Senate is less valuable: There the key numbers are 41, the number below which even a unified minority lacks the power to block legislation on its own, and 60, the number below which even a unified majority can be blocked. In the Senate the Republicans’ goal should be to get enough above 40 that they can block legislation even if the Dem­ocrats manage to persuade a small number of Republicans to vote for it.

A lot of Republicans believe that to maximize the party’s potential gains they should repeat one thing they did in 1994. That September, almost all Republican candidates for the House gathered on the steps of the Capitol to pledge that if they took control of that body they would quickly force floor votes on ten items, which they collectively called the “Con­tract with America.” Party chairman Haley Barbour paid to put an ad about the contract in TV Guide.

Political professionals have not reached a consensus about the importance of the Contract to the Republican wins in 1994. The elections that November were first and foremost a referendum on the first two years of Bill Clinton’s presidency. Polls showed that most voters were not aware of the Contract. Republicans largely omitted social issues from the Contract in the interest of party unity, but they appeared to play a strong role in the elections. (Some observers said Republicans had won on “God, gays, and guns.”)

But the Contract served several useful functions even if it was not uppermost in the minds of voters. First, it gave Re­publican candidates policy issues they could all talk about. Second, it helped imbue the party with an image of being forward-looking problem-solvers rather than merely anti-Clintonites. Third, it lured the Democrats into a mistake. They attacked the Contract as a reprise of Ronald Reagan’s failed policies, not realizing that the public, in electing Bill Clinton two years earlier, had not thought of itself as repudiating Reagan or his policies.

The Contract did not pledge that Republicans would actually enact the legislation they ran on or even pass all of it through the House. The premise of the Contract was that the entrenched Dem­ocratic majority of the House, which had run it for 40 years, had refused even to hold votes on popular conservative ideas. (While Republican claims that each of the items in the Contract had the support of more than 60 percent of the public were misleading, those items clearly had widespread appeal.)

The decades of Democratic control meant that “there was a lot of low-hanging fruit,” says Ed Gillespie, a Republican strategist who was working for his party’s House leadership at the time. “It’s a more challenging environment now,” he adds. Republicans had control of the House, Senate, and presidency only four years ago. The party does not have four decades’ worth of untried legislative ideas on the shelf.

Another difference from 16 years ago is that back then no organizations were looking backward at the success of a previous Contract. This time many activist groups and individual candidates will have their own ten-point plans. “There are going to be multiple contracts,” says an aide to House Republican whip Eric Can­tor. Social conservatives, tea partiers, and congressmen with their own national followings will all want to see the par­ty’s contract reflect at least some of their ideas, which will make devising it tricky. That will be the job of Rep. Kevin Mc­Carthy of California. He ran the platform committee in 2008, and is widely credited with preventing the differences between conservative activists and presidential nominee John McCain from causing an explosion.

For all the changes since 1994, there are enough similarities between Republicans’ conditions now and then to justify trying to adapt the model of the Contract. This year’s election will primarily be a refer­endum on President Obama and the Dem­ocrats, just as 1994 was a referendum on the Democrats of the early Clinton years. This is as it should be: The Democrats made huge gains in 2006 and 2008, had enough power in Washington to set an am­bitious agenda without serious Repub­li­can input, and did so. Republicans have largely opposed the way Democrats have seen fit to use their vast power, and it is entirely reasonable for the upcoming election to turn on their performance.

#page#In 2009 Republicans had to establish their identity as a party of principled op­position to Obama’s agenda, and that task will take up much of 2010 as well. Dem­ocrats may delight in calling Republicans “the party of no.” But the GOP will be much better off so defined than defined as “the party of us too” or “the party of we’re not sure.” Eventually, however, Re­pub­licans also have to become identified with their own popular policies. If they do, they can portray the Democrats’ proposals as part and parcel of a status quo with which Americans are dissatisfied but whose worst bureaucratic features the Democrats wish to build on. If they don’t, it will be much easier for the Democrats to portray themselves as the reformers. And the Democrats will continue to set the policy agenda.

Some of the elements of a new Repub­lican Contract (whatever it ends up being called) can easily be outlined. The public of 1994 was disgusted with a political class that had run up the deficit while generating a series of scandals — sound familiar? — so much of the Contract with America involved political reform. It forced votes on bills to make Congress live under the rules it legislated for the private sector, to provide funding for any tasks it ordered state and local governments to undertake, and to limit its members’ time in office. Few of these procedural reforms really addressed the fundamental flaws of liberal governance, but all of them put Repub­licans on record as opposed to self-serving business as usual.

In 2010, Republicans will want to get on the right side of voter anger again — and also point out that Democrats’ pledges to run Congress openly and ethically have been broken. Useful, or at least harmless, reforms can again be undertaken. Putting the full text of all bills online for 72 hours before a vote has become a popular cause; look for it in a new Contract. Pay for government employees has been booming at a time of private-sector layoffs. There’s another issue for the Contract. Con­gressional perks ought to be examined, too. Members of Congress, even those who are not veterans, get to be treated at military facilities such as Walter Reed. Why? And congressional pensions could stand to be reined in.

If the Democrats’ health-care legislation is enacted, replacing it ought to be at the top of the Republicans’ domestic-policy to-do list. The public knows that Republicans are prepared to exploit anti-Obamacare sentiment. It does not know that Republicans are prepared to fight for something better. Making a pledge to replace Obamacare with more reasonable policies would help.

Republicans will be tempted to run on a promise of “no new bailouts.” To be credible, however, that promise will have to be coupled with two other things: a plan to unwind the federal government’s existing holdings (in, for example, the auto industry) and a plan to keep financial institutions from using government policy to become too important to fail.

In 1980, 1994, and 2000, Republicans won elections in part by promising to cut middle-class taxes. They made no such pledge in 2006 or 2008. It may not be a coincidence that they got pummeled. “One element [of a new contract] should be tax policies that are pro-growth and pro-family,” says former congressman and Republican strategist Vin Weber.

Americans are more concerned about the national debt than they have been in years — but not yet on board for any specific step to reduce it. On this issue, too, Republicans badly need something plausible to say. A Contract that omits mention of the debt or fights it with platitudes will enrage the tea-party movement.

And while people do not worry enough about global warming to be willing to sacrifice their standard of living to fight it, they do worry. Republicans ought to promote new energy technologies in order to reduce the risks of global warming without doing the sort of economic damage that cap-and-trade legislation would en­tail. This issue too belongs in any new Republican agenda.

The original Contract with America was even more important after the 1994 elections than it was beforehand. It gave House Republicans a template for their first hundred days in power; they didn’t wake up the day after the election and have to scramble to devise an agenda. It also created the potent illusion politicians call a “mandate.” Here, too, today’s situation offers a parallel. If Republicans do not come up with a common policy agenda, they might still be able to gain power in the elections — only to find that they have no idea what to do with it. 

Ramesh Ponnuru is a senior editor for National Review, a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute.

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