A *Real* Contract With America
These proposals are concrete, doable and poll well. They pose a sharp contrast to the priorities of the Republican Congress. Other measures or different framing could be proposed as well.
But gaining widespread agreement from risk-averse politicians--even on a poll-tested agenda--isn't easy. In 1994 many Republicans thought Gingrich's Contract was political folly, giving Democrats something to attack when they were down. Most Republican Senate candidates would have nothing to do with it. Some worried that excluding the right's social issues would alienate their base. The Contract was far more popular with the challengers Gingrich had helped groom than with incumbents.
Those same problems bedevil today's Democrats. As the corruption of the Republican majority makes headlines, Democrats continue to observe the truce against filing ethics complaints. Rahm Emanuel, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, has even found it hard to get Democrats to unite behind basic reforms that would apply to them, like banning legislators from taking lucrative lobbying posts after leaving office. Calls to invest in energy independence and affordable college education poll off the charts, but Democrats are reluctant to support any large new investments in the face of Bush's deficits. Democrats who went through the collapse of Hillarycare shudder at the thought of taking on our broken health system. Controlling drug prices is a natural, but the drug-company lobby insures that even the Democratic leadership splits on this question. It is hard to present yourself as a party of change if you're not ready to break with the present.
Iraq poses the hardest questions. Democrats in office are deeply divided on the occupation, which their base overwhelmingly opposes. If they could, Democratic leaders would deal with Iraq the way Gingrich treated right-wing social issues, omitting it from any common platform, arguing that it isn't a problem voters expect Congress to solve and that Americans want more attention paid to domestic concerns anyway. But ducking on the war is likely to dismay more than Democratic activists. By next fall the war will have cost many more lives and more than $250 billion. With no compelling domestic agenda, Bush and the Republicans may seek to turn the election into a referendum on who stands with the troops. If they don't face the issue, Democrats will look like they're playing politics with the nation's security. And if they remain divided, Democrats will be hard pressed to say they are ready to lead.
Gingrich was able to pull off the Contract in 1994 partly because Republicans were ready to try anything after four decades in the minority. Gingrich also had built a farm team of candidates who were willing to follow his lead. And he had the support of an independent conservative movement on the march against Clinton and the Democratic Congress. If Democrats are to find their voice in 2006, it will take aggressive leaders who are willing to take big risks and overcome internal opposition as well as a strong citizen's movement that's driving the attack against the right and pushing Democrats to stand up.
It took DeLay's Republicans barely a decade to grow even more arrogant and corrupt than the old order they had challenged. The yet-unanswered question is whether Democratic politicians and progressive activists are as determined and desperate after a decade in the wilderness as Republicans were after forty years.