Exactly 16 years ago today, I stood on the steps of the Capitol with then-minority leader Newt Gingrich, and hundreds of other incumbent Republican Members of Congress and fellow challengers. It was a sweltering hot day as we listened to several mercifully short speeches. Then, one-by-one, we stepped forward and signed our names to a document titled simply, the “Contract With America.”
The Contract With America was unique in American politics. It was a short and simple listing of 11 action items that followed two explicit promises. We promised that — if rewarded with a majority in the House for the first time in more than four decades — on the very first day in office, we would adopt a series of procedural reforms to dramatically open the processes under which that institution operated.
We also promised that, in the ensuing 99 days, we would bring to the floor of the House for open debate and vote, 10 specific measures that would – if passed by both houses and signed by then-President Bill Clinton – balance the federal budget, set term limits for House members, and enact a number of other significant domestic reforms.
The Contract With America was then published in “TV Guide,” and Gingrich urged voters to tear it out and use it to follow the progress of the hopefully Republican-controlled House. If we failed to deliver, voters were told to fire us in the next election. The genius of this plan lay in its simplicity and its delivery. Democrats, lulled into a false sense of security bred by 42 years of unchallenged rule, failed to see the coming deluge of voter unrest; many laughed off the Contract as a silly election year ploy.
Following the election, the Democrats’ mirth turned quickly to anger; but to no avail. The congressional reforms were instituted, and in the next three months, every one of the promised pieces of legislation was introduced, debated and voted on. Some passed; others did not (term limits, for one); but the Republicans kept their promise, and the GOP maintained its majority for a dozen years
Now, eight congresses later, the Republican Party, under the direction of leaders far less savvy and energetic than Newt Gingrich, have proposed a new song sheet from which it hopes to orchestrate a takeover of the majority in the House similar to 1994. However, the “Pledge To America,” announced last Thursday with far less fanfare than that which accompanied the signing of the original on September 27, 1994, is no “Contract With America.”
To be sure, the Pledge is a sound and good document. It talks sincerely of cutting government spending, reducing taxes, strengthening national defense, and – like every modern Congress before it — rooting out waste and abuse in government. And, like the Contract, it largely avoids divisive social issues.
However, the Pledge To America is presented at a time when the American public is demonstrably weary of generalized promises by either major party. The electorate is highly skeptical that either of those parties will deliver what it promises; especially when many of those declarations are a rehash of promises made every election cycle by candidates of both parties (for example, to “restore trust” in government). Yes, there are a few specifics listed (such as repealing the “government takeover of health care”), but its rhetoric will be largely lost in the anti-incumbent fervor that has taken hold of the electorate with a vengeance.
Republicans stand to benefit significantly from this malaise, but it won’t be because of any great work the party has done over the past four years in the minority; and it won’t result from the unveiling of the “Pledge To America.” GOP gains will come because its candidates are in the right place at the right time; and because they are not Democrats.