Amid great fanfare in late September, the Republican Party, under the direction of House minority leader Kevin McCarthy, debuted its pitch to seal a new majority in the next Congress beneath a rubric redolent of the overtures of a bad boyfriend: “A Commitment to America.” Modeled on the landmark 1994 Contract With America pulled together by Newt Gingrich (speaking of bad romantic partners), the 2022 GOP program is mostly a grab bag of harum-scarum cultural resentments papering over a singularly anemic policy wish list.
The document dresses up the GOP’s drive to reverse drug-price negotiations under Medicare with a tirade about “top-down, one-size-fits-all” D.C. machinations to produce “rationed care.” The Supreme Court’s Dobbs ruling instituting coerced motherhood for pregnant American women only rates an indirect-at-best injunction to “protect the lives of unborn children.” The agenda comes into sharper focus when it seeks to feed the rancor of the Republican Party base—via a drive-by anti-trans fillip on the integrity of girls’ sports, or a lurid retelling of a pet right-wing urban legend that Attorney General Merrick Garland had branded anti-CRT parents swarming school boards as “domestic terrorists.”
This latter is a “disgusting lie,” says Geoffrey Kabaservice, vice president of political studies at the Niskanen Center and a longtime chronicler of Republican extremism. “How are you going to appeal to swing voters if you lead with a lie?”
Of course, disgusting lies abound in the Trump-deranged GOP; it boasts as a central rallying cry the completely unfounded Big Lie about the Democratic-orchestrated theft of the 2020 presidential election. (The Commitment to America euphemistically repurposes this thuggish authoritarian falsehood in a perverse allegation that Democrats are betraying “the constitutional principle of one-person, one-vote.”)
Congressional Democrats are banking on the GOP’s notional 2022 agenda running afoul of a midterm electorate increasingly skeptical of the party’s alarmist culture-war messaging. At a videotaped event for the rollout of the so-called Commitment to America with sympathetic voters outside of Pittsburgh, McCarthy nodded in agreement as one audience member bemoaned the “Marxist agenda” overtaking Covid-hobbled public schools. Fellow lawmaker panelists such as QAnon enthusiast Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) and Trump toady Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) were not exactly walking advertisements for moderation in power.
“That’s something that should give everyone pause,” says House Progressive Caucus leader Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) of the hard-right tenor of the agenda’s inaugural event. “None of those proposals are popular with the American people.” Representative Jamie Raskin (D-Md.), a former Trump impeachment manager who now serves on the House’s select January 6 committee, argues for wider-ranging messaging this midterm cycle that exposes the GOP as a hostile foe of American democracy. “I think independent voters are very moved, both by the information about the political coup plotting and insurrectionary violence of January 6 and the assault on democracy, but also the attack on freedom…. There’s no safety for our freedom with autocrats and dictators.”
The GOP’s undernourished policy profile is a clear reflection of the party’s seemingly incurable affinity for strongman Trumpian politics. “Look, the Republicans literally passed no platform in 2020,” Raskin says. “It was the first time in modern political history that a major party did not have a platform, which tells you that their only platform is whatever Donald Trump says on any particular day.”
As with any other cult, power accrues not to a figurehead but to the most disciplined members of the maximum leader’s inner circle—in this case, the shadowy but influential Freedom Caucus, the Tea Party–bred House band of true believers, in which latter-day GOP honchos like Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and erstwhile Trump chiefs of staff Mick Mulvaney and Mark Meadows cut their teeth in Congress. As McCarthy was preparing to debut the Commitment to America, the Freedom Caucus sought to force a series of rule changes to limit his power should the GOP retake the majority in November and elevate McCarthy as speaker.
The Freedom Caucus had previously flexed its muscle by helping to oust John Boehner from the speakership in 2015—which may leave McCarthy wondering whether the elaborate choreography around the incredible shrinking House GOP agenda will be worth the trouble. “I don’t think there’s any distinction between the Freedom Caucus and the Republican Party,” Jayapal says. “They are extremists, and they are the Republican Party. Kevin McCarthy is going to be the lapdog of the extremists.”