A *Real* Contract With America
Lethal incompetence and indifference in Katrina's wake. Republican House boss Tom DeLay indicted--twice. Senate Republican leader Bill Frist under investigation by the Securities and Exchange Commission. "Casino Jack" Abramoff's cynical cesspool of conservative corruption. Stagnant wages and rising prices. Quagmire in Iraq. Have Americans had enough? Will Katrina and corruption threaten the right's hold over Congress and open a broader challenge to the conservatism that has dominated our politics over the past twenty-five years? It's possible--but only if Democrats can make themselves a compelling force for change.
1994 and the Gingrich Revolt
The last successful effort to nationalize Congressional races in a nonpresidential year came in 1994, when Newt Gingrich and movement conservatives unfurled their Contract With America and shocked themselves by gaining fifty-four seats to take control of Congress, ending forty years of Democratic rule. That election offers pointed lessons for Democrats hoping for a similar reversal twelve years later.
Conservatives like to paint 1994 as a noble campaign run on ideas and values, with Republicans offering voters a concrete agenda and a principled choice. The reality was something different. The right set up the election with two years of unrelenting, scorched-earth assault on the newly elected Bill Clinton. The resignation under a cloud of the Democratic Speaker and minority whip, the indictment of a powerful committee chair and the post office and House banking scandals helped Gingrich paint Democrats as corrupt, arrogant and out of touch.
Gingrich's Contract With America was a notably cynical document. The controversial social passions of the conservative base--abortion, school prayer, guns--were left out. The Contract promised a balanced-budget amendment to appeal to Perot voters but also more tax cuts. It called for term limits for legislators that few would observe. Most of the measures were poll-tested conservative staples--tax cuts, a bigger military, tough on crime and welfare, plus the inevitable corporate pandering of "tort reform" and deregulation.
Substance was less important than symbol. Republicans had a specific plan that included bold political reform, and they promised to be held accountable. Despite Democratic attacks, most voters didn't know the details, yet the Contract helped the GOP present itself as a unified party with a positive plan for change.
2006: A Liberal Revolution?
Twelve years later Democrats face a far more forbidding challenge in attempting to nationalize the election. Reapportionment has left fewer contested districts. The political machine built by the right still has no Democratic equivalent. In 1994 the country was at peace. Now the Iraq War--even as Americans turn against it--divides Democratic politicians from their voters. Rebuilding after the Katrina catastrophe blurs partisan differences on the role of government. Yet the potential for a landmark election is clear. The corruption and crony capitalism of the Republican Congress and Administration are sources of unending scandal; it is simply the way they do business. The folks who came to make a revolution stayed to run a racket, and independent voters might well conclude that it's time for them to go. Moreover, Katrina exposed the tragic costs of the conservative scorn for government, and it brought to public attention the spreading poverty that marks Bush's failed economic policies.
Just as Clinton and the Democratic Congress's failure to deliver on a central promise--affordable healthcare--turned voters off in 1994, heading FEMA with incompetent cronies exposed the fact that Bush and the Republicans punted on the central promise they made after 9/11--that they would keep America safe. And the response to Katrina revealed how out of touch the antigovernment crowd is. To defend the Administration's ineptitude, they sang from the conservative hymnal, charging that the Administration's failures prove big government doesn't work (the Cato Institute even called once more for abolishing FEMA). They blamed the victims, or as Linda Chavez, head of the Civil Rights Commission under Reagan, said of those who were stranded: "You are dealing with the permanently poor--people who don't have jobs, are not used to getting up and organizing themselves...and for whom sitting and waiting is a way of life." Senator Rick Santorum called for "tougher penalties on those who decide to ride it out." (He later amended this to exempt the one-fifth of the population in the Katrina disaster area that did not own a car.) But Karl Rove realized this wouldn't sell, so Bush vowed to spend whatever it takes to rebuild the Gulf Coast, while ruling out any rollback of his top-end tax cuts to pay for it. Conservatives then detailed offsetting spending cuts--mostly in Medicaid and Medicare, as well as other poverty programs--that would only add to the misery of the most vulnerable.
Americans are clearly looking for a way out. Bush's approval numbers have tanked. Congress stands in low repute, with Republican declines giving Democrats strong leads in generic Congressional face-offs. Pessimism about the country's course has deepened, along with opposition to Bush's signature policies--privatizing Social Security, the Iraq War and trickle-down economics. As home-heating bills soar this winter, disaffection with the crowd in power is likely to grow.