Cue the sound of crickets chirping. You never heard of the New Partnership, you say? That’s no surprise. It was almost completely ignored. None of the major television networks covered its unveiling. The Washington Post only mentioned it in passing, while The New York Times ignored it completely. Not even Democratic candidates seemed to pay it much attention. “Nobody used it,” a senior House Democratic aide recently groused to me.
The embarrassment was doubly acute because the New Partnership rally had such clear echoes of another event that had occurred almost precisely a decade earlier with smashingly successful results. On Sept. 27, 1994, over 300 Republican House members and candidates gathered outside the Capitol to unveil the “Contract with America.” It was a promise, signed by every single GOP candidate, pledging that if the then-minority Republicans won control of the House, they would hold votes on 10 specific priorities, including tax cuts, missile defense, welfare reform, and term limits. The Contract was a hit, earning front-page coverage in The New York Times and The Washington Post and defining an election campaign in which Republicans would pick up 54 seats and win a House majority for the first time in 40 years. (Last fall, by contrast, House Democrats lost two seats.) Although the historical parallels are imperfect, the difference between the two events neatly symbolizes the dilemma faced by today’s House Democrats. After spending 10 years mired as the minority party in the House, Democrats seem nowhere close to making the sort of bold comeback Republicans made in 1994. Democratic candidates have recently struggled to match the GOP’s crisp and simple message about terrorism, tax cuts, and morality. Meanwhile House Republicans have spent four years hammering through the Bush agenda with a failure rate of almost zero. House Democrats are desperately in need of a new strategy.
In their quest, they might want to consult The Enduring Revolution. This lively, readable account by FOX News correspondent (and former Washington Times reporter) Major Garrett explores the way Republicans devised the Contract with America in 1994, rode it to control of the House, and then used its principles to reshape American politics. Pegged to the Contract’s 10th anniversary, it also comes at an important moment for congressional Democrats, who are increasingly asking whether they might learn something from the stunning rise of the Gingrich Republicans a decade ago.
Garrett argues that the Contract–and the conservative House majority it helped to create–fundamentally changed America and continues to drive national politics. That’s certainly true in broad ways. There’s little doubt that the House Republicans’ focus on tax cuts, budget-balancing, welfare reform, and defense spending dragged Bill Clinton, and thus the Democratic Party, to the right on those issues. And the Bush presidency would, of course, be entirely different were there a Democratic House to contest him. But Garrett overstretches on some of the specifics, as when he argues that John Kerry’s proposed middle-class tax cuts last year were somehow inspired by the Contract, when Bill Clinton thought to do the same thing way back in 1992.
Likewise, Garrett contends that had House Republicans not passed the 1998 Iraq Liberation Act, which called for the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, the Iraq war “would have been much harder” to wage. That seems a reach, and moreover it says little about the wisdom of the Contract, which never mentioned Iraq. (Indeed, the Republican class of ’94 had a distinctly isolationist strain, and, like the pre-9/11 George Bush, loathed the kind of “nation building” now underway in Mesopotamia.)
Democrats will find such arguments unconvincing and Garrett’s occasional forays into a reflexive FOX News-style partisanship maddening. (He bashes Democrats, for instance, for allegedly trying to gut national security. But he exonerates the Gingrich Republicans, who were so myopically obsessed with missile defense–they missed the rise of Islamic fundamentalism.)
But even liberals will be intrigued by Garrett’s insider history of how the “Contract with America” was devised. Republicans certainly did not win the House with the Contract alone. First, there was a basic change in attitude. As early as 1980, Newt Gingrich was thinking in detail about winning the House, which Democrats had then controlled for almost 30 years. Along with allies like Dick Armey and Bob Walker, Gingrich convinced fellow Republicans that continued comity and cooperation were pointless and that Democrats were enemies that must be defeated. One former Armey aide explains this new attitude to Garrett: “It was always, ‘We’ve got to get up there and get the majority.’ It wasn’t just, ‘I want to go serve my time.'” This meant organizational changes, as well. Garrett writes that in the run-up to the 1994 election, for instance, the head of the House GOP’s campaign committee, Bill Paxon, ordered GOP incumbents to raise money for fellow candidates for the first time in party history; senior Republicans hated the idea but grudgingly played along.
Republicans also learned to use flamethrowers. The House’s young conservatives were brilliantly effective at portraying the Democratic House as an undemocratic and outright corrupt institution. Gingrich, in particular, was relentless in his attacks on top House Democrats, such as former House Speaker Jim Wright (D-Wash.) and Ways and Means Chairman Dan Rostenkowski (D-Ill.), and never missed an opportunity to manufacture a demagogic fury about the House’s supposed “corruption” (Gingrich’s exhibit A was the wildly overblown 1992 House bank scandal). After Clinton’s election, the focus shifted to ridiculing his agenda. “Our technique,” Walker explains, “was to convince everybody that there was something in the bill they hated and that they couldn’t explain back home. So even if they were willing to go along with one aspect of it, you’d simply go to another aspect and say, ‘You don’t want to go back home and defend this, do you?” This strategy was practiced to masterful effect against Clinton’s 1994 crime and health-care bills.
Garrett pays surprisingly short shrift to this component of the ’94 revolution. Instead, he prefers to cast the Gingrich Republicans as men of positive ideas. “The easy course, the predictable course,” Garrett writes, “would have been to resist everything.” It is true that they did not. Garrett argues it was their crystal-clear articulation of a bold alternative vision that brought Republicans to power. By the early 1990s, the GOP’s young turks had come to realize that they had “to provide an alternative vision of government,” as former Armey aide Ed Gillespie explains. The seminal moment, in Garrett’s telling, came in 1993 when House Republicans introduced their own highly detailed budget plan. That budget presented the House GOP’s core principles: tax cuts, higher defense spending, and deficit reduction through cuts in entitlements, corporate subsidies, and other outlays.
These were hardly new ideas, to be sure. But they did signal a certain gravity and readiness to govern. And the subsequent “Contract with America” added a clever element of accountability. Republicans ingeniously unveiled the Contract in an advertisement in, of all places, TV Guide, with the no-nonsense promise, “If we break this contract, throw us out. We mean it.”
Garrett notes that all the ideas in the Contract polled extremely well, suggesting that Republicans were perfectly in tune with the American public. (Indeed, Gingrich insisted on omitting divisive social issues from the document, leading to some bitter feuding with religious conservative leaders. By contrast, the inclusion of a then-faddish term limits provision was vehemently opposed by many GOP leaders but included for its popularity in what many Republicans consider “the only grossly cynical move in the entire Contract process.”)
But just as it’s possible to overstate the Gingrich Revolution as a purely negative exercise, as many Democrats do, Garrett oversells the degree to which the “Contract with America” harnessed a popular yearning for the Gingrich agenda. After all, Clinton easily out-dueled the Republicans in the years just after the Contract (although Garrett argues, not implausibly, that Republicans accomplished more in the 1990s than they are usually given credit for). More likely, the Contract was an effective way for Republicans to nationalize an election they hoped would be a referendum against Democratic leaders in Congress and, even more, the early ineptitude of the Clinton presidency. Even Dick Armey tells Garrett that “Hillary’s health care plan had more to do with us winning the majority in ’94 than the Contract did.” As you may recall, the GOP’s maniacal opposition to Hillarycare was hardly an intellectually vibrant, positive-idea driven affair.
Garrett would undoubtedly argue–as have conservatives such as Fred Barnes and David Brooks–that Democrats engage in scorched-earth tactics at their own peril; that they must present a clear governing agenda if they are to win back the public’s favor and win back the Congress. It’s hard to contest the notion that a party needs a sharp and clear message. They can certainly do better than the drab “New Partnership for America’s Future,” riddled as it was with such banalities as “stronger rural communities”; “support fair wages with good benefits”; “protect our borders”; “honor veterans and their families.” A little more of the Contract’s concision and specificity certainly would have helped.
That said, history might have remembered the Contract as just another campaign gimmick if not for the ideological warfare that preceded it. In 1994, voters were ornery and eager to punish Bill Clinton and purge what they’d been told was a corrupt House of Representatives. (The National Rifle Association was also whipping its members into an unprecedented frenzy over the 1993 assault-weapons ban.) Democrats shouldn’t be chary about repeating such tactics. With some hard work, smarts, and a little luck, they might even turn George Bush’s Social Security “reform” into a repeat of the Hillarycare debacle, with the potential for similar electoral results in 2006.
It makes sense that Republicans would want to congratulate themselves for their grand ideas and patronizingly advise Democrats to follow them. And Democrats certainly should be thinking of new ways to appeal to voters who are drifting to the GOP. But the truth is that the GOP’s path to power was at least as negative as it was visionary. Democrats shouldn’t forget it.