It is convenient to say that the contract “nationalized” the midterm elections. But that’s not the whole story. I was working for a House Republican when the contract was announced, then for Gingrich’s communications store when the contract was signed into law under his leadership as the new president, and the contrast between that document and the “commitment” of today could not be more striking.
The contract was groundbreaking – a “class” of Congress was doing something typically seen only in parliamentary forms of government: they assembled a platform that went above and beyond priorities and wrote down a list specific laws to introduce and pass within a specific time frame – and then called on the American people to punish him if he failed.
It focused not just on the controversies of the moment, but on the big, long-simmering issues that garnered 60% of public support, presented in legislative language. It included a balanced budget amendment (“Fiscal Responsibility Act”), welfare reform (“Personal Responsibility Act”), congressional term limits (“Citizen Legislature Act”), tax reform and regulation (“Job Creation and Wage Enforcement Act”) – as well as a preamble reforming the way Congress (the House, at least) conducted its business. He avoided more controversial social issues, such as abortion. Given a skeptical Senate GOP and a Democratic president, not all articles of the contract became law. Nevertheless, important elements have – notably the reform of social assistance.
Its specificity was useful in many ways, offering more than a platform and more than a message. It was a “contract” offered to a nation weary of politicians’ broken promises. It was just four years after President George HW Bush broke one of the clearest political promises in American history. After declaring in his 1988 nomination acceptance speech, “Read my lips, no new taxes,” Bush reversed himself in a 1990 deficit-cutting deal with the Democrats.
This agreement has divided Republicans in Congress. Gingrich, then the House Minority Whip, led a conference rebellion against his own leader, Rep. Bob Michel, who backed the president. Bush’s broken vow would contribute to Ross Perot’s bid for a third party — partly over tax issues — and, possibly, his own re-election defeat.
Thus, the slogan of the contract – announced in TV Guide: “A campaign promise is one thing. A signed contract is another. The document also provided a crucial unifying blueprint — “marching orders,” so to speak — for the first three months of the term that all House Republicans, moderate or conservative, could support.
The “commitment to America” falls flat on each of these points.
Far from being a specific, bold list of legislative inspiration, McCarthy’s brainchild is a collection of amorphous and uplifting platitudes – “An economy that is strong… A nation that is secure… A future that rests on freedom… A government that is responsible.” Dig a little deeper and we discover, well, more nebulous phrases – “Confront Big Tech and Demand Fairness”, “Achieve Longer, Healthier Lives for Americans”.
The very words, “commitment to America,” are a retread of a 2020 GOP document. What “commitment” can it represent if it can’t even claim a different concept from the two-year-old pledges?
McCarthy’s document also falls short of his predecessor’s secondary message, as a reflection and implicit repudiation of the failures of the last single-term president. Contract Republicans realized that breaking Bush’s wishes – “lie” might be too harsh a word – had a political consequence that needed to be addressed one way or another. Far from repudiating Donald Trump’s “big lie” about the election, McCarthy’s Republicans seem unwilling to push back against the former president’s lies and exaggerations.
In that sense, it’s a “worthy” successor not to the robust 1994 contract, but to the non-existent 2020 Republican National Convention platform that simply pledged to stand in solidarity with everything Trump endorsed. . Additionally, by including social issues like abortion, while lacking specific actions or a timeline to complete their agenda, there is little to focus and bind members. The one notable exception is congressional investigations into the Biden administration, which are inevitable when an opposition party takes over.
In short, Gingrich’s contract featured specificity, thought and bold innovation. McCarthy’s engagement, on the other hand, promotes rhetorical vagueness and vaporware.
Yes, Gingrich now supports “Engagement” despite how much he pales in comparison to his own contract. So McCarthy must be doing something right, right? Alas, that says more about party loyalty requirements than anything else. Young Gingrich was a historian happy to lead a principled rebellion against a president of his own party. He then proceeded to craft a new founding party document pointing the GOP in a boldly different direction.
Now, in the shadow of a former president bent on deception and destruction, Gingrich’s platform-building days are behind him. Like McCarthy, he seems dedicated to the path of least resistance — a path all Americans should fear as Republicans prepare to take them down.
More other writers at Bloomberg Opinion:
Republican ‘engagement’ is an exercise in redundancy: David Hopkins
Republicans not learning the right lessons: Jonathan Bernstein
Abortion remains big X-factor in midterm elections: Joshua Green
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Editorial Board or of Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Robert A. George is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist and editorial board member covering government and public policy. Previously, he served on the editorial boards of the New York Daily News and the New York Post.
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