Political mythology—a more powerful force than political reality—holds that former House Speaker Newt Gingrich’s "Contract With America" captured the imagination of the electorate in 1994 and swept Republicans into control of Congress for the first time in forty years. But after the election, polling showed most Americans to be unaware of the specifics of that supposedly definitional document. Contracts and pledges from the parties in mid-term elections are not about ideas. They’re tactics, drawn up to give coherence to a campaign so candidates can say, "We’re not the ‘Party of No.’ We stand for something." The point is to nationalize a campaign—in the eyes of the media and key voters—to legitimize and benefit the challengers.
That explains why the "Pledge to America" by the House Republican Caucus cannot be ignored. The biggest mistake Democrats made sixteen years ago was their failure to reveal the Contract With America for what it was—an outline for the special-interest takeover of the legislative process—and to turn it against the GOP. President Bill Clinton admits he lost control of the debate in 1994. Now, in another election cycle that sees dispirited Democrats struggling to explain that they really have accomplished things while in control of the White House and Congress, the Democratic response should be more tactically and ideologically sophisticated. But to do this, President Obama and Congressional Democrats must recognize the pledge for what it is not—and for what it is.
The Republican proposal is not a Tea Party plan. Aside from some cursory references to the Constitution and a promise to "immediately reduce spending" by cutting off the stimulus funds, which have already been allocated (presumably in many cases to the districts of the very Representatives who promise to slash them—fat chance), the pledge reads as if written by lobbyists. Perhaps that’s because its drafting was organized by a lobbyist: Brian Wild, former aide to Vice President Cheney. Wild toiled for the US Chamber of Commerce before joining a powerful GOP-linked firm, the Nickles Group. There he earned his keep promoting the interests of oil giants like ExxonMobil and Anadarko Petroleum, pharmaceutical giant Pfizer and, ironically, scandal-plagued insurance giant AIG—one of the first and most expensive recipients of the bailouts Tea Partisans so decry.
Wild and his drafting team produced nearly 8,000 words of DC-insider "compromises and milquetoast rhetorical flourishes in search of unanimity"—to borrow a description from conservative commentator and Tea Party ally Erick Erickson, who dismissed the pledge as "pablum" that "will actually do nothing but keep making Washington fatter before we crash from the sugar high." Even more damning is the assessment from business bible Forbes: it argues that the pledge to maintain Bush-era tax cuts for the rich—at a cost of $3 trillion over the coming decade—when weighed against proposed domestic spending cuts, "would result in long-term deficits far higher than if Congress merely maintained the status quo for the next two years."
The smart Democratic response is not to pull out the abacus and try to out-deficit-wonk the deficit wonks. It’s enough to label the GOP plan "fiscally irresponsible" and explain why: Washington Republicans do not want to reduce spending; they want to see federal largesse going to their wealthy supporters and corporate allies. President Obama made that point well in his Saturday radio address after the pledge was released; he characterized it as "the same worn-out philosophy: cut taxes for millionaires and billionaires; cut the rules for Wall Street and the special interests; and cut the middle class loose to fend for itself."
But it is even more important that Democrats make clear where Republican fiscal irresponsibility will lead if the rising generation of GOP leaders—especially Wisconsin’s Paul Ryan, the party’s budget guru, and Virginia’s Eric Cantor, House party whip—have anything to say about it. Democratic Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz is on the right track: "What’s hidden in this pledge is the Republican pledge to privatize Social Security." In fact, Ryan and Cantor go further, talking up the replacement of Medicare with voucher schemes.
Recalling the missed opportunities of sixteen years ago, Bill Clinton says Democrats should counter the pledge with a short list of their priorities. Good idea, but the party must offer a clear alternative. Protecting Social Security and Medicare should top that list; one way to do that is by ending the Bush tax breaks for the rich. Then, the party must commit itself to fixing the jobs crisis by calling for the sort of infrastructure investment that would make a huge dent in the unemployment rate. And in an election year when the most serious Democratic losses are likely to be in the industrial states of the Great Lakes, it makes strategic as well as ethical sense for Democrats to demand a radical change to the trade policies that led to outsourcing and deindustrialization.
Finally, if the Democrats are serious about opening up a national debate to benefit themselves politically, they should be talking about loan guarantees and tax policies to push banks to start lending the more than $1 trillion they’ve got parked in Federal Reserve accounts. That’s the money that should be creating jobs, restructuring home loans and stabilizing the economy. A national debate about preserving Social Security, creating jobs, reversing trade policies and putting pressure on big banks is not what the GOP strategists and corporate lobbyists who drafted the Pledge to America want. It may not even be what a lot of top Democrats want. But it is the debate that could assure that 2010 will not be a repeat of 1994.