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Remembrance of Contracts Past

Newt Gingrich and other Republicans look back at the Contract with America on its tenth anniversary.

10:35 AM, Sep 28, 2004 • By DAVID SKINNER
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YESTERDAY, September 27, marked the ten-year anniversary of the historic signing of the Contract with America on the steps of the U.S. Capitol. And this fall marks the tenth anniversary of the subsequent (some would say consequent) election of a Republican majority in Congress. So far the celebrations have been pretty low-key, an unjust and probably unintended comment on the magnitude of the event. No matter. The Republican takeover with the midterm elections of November 1994 has become for conservatives a station of the cross in the progress of rightward ideas--on par with the 1980 election of Ronald Reagan in impact, a spiritual kin to the 1964 Barry Goldwater moment.

Furthermore, the Contract with America remains one of the most popular things Republicans ever did.

Still one forgets the breadth of strategist Newt Gingrich's campaign to win a majority. On a panel at the American Enterprise Institute yesterday morning with political consultant Joseph Gaylord, Rep. Jennifer Dunne of Washington, journalist Michael Barone, and former majority leader Dick Armey, the former House speaker emphasized that all but a couple of Republican candidates signed the Contract with America. The election yielded an additional nine millions votes for Republicans over 1992 and a pickup of 54 seats in the House of Representatives.

But the theme of the panel was the Contract with America per se. The contract, more than one panelist noted, functioned as a script for inexperienced candidates. It also got the campaign message directly to voters without any filtering by an unsympathetic media. Gingrich returned more than once to the difference between a platform and a contract. The former, he said, is a group of policies supported by a candidate, while a contract is an agreement to carry out certain actions in exchange for voters' support.

Why the Contract with America worked so well was much discussed. Despite the image of the class of '94 as rabble-rousing radicals, all ten agenda items on the Contract enjoyed over 70 percent support of the American public, which was in fact required for their inclusion. The other criterion was that an item had to have been blocked from a floor vote by the Democrats. The contract's populist character was underlined by its marketing, including a national ad-buy in TV Guide, which set a record for "the most expensive political ad," Gingrich noted. Also, the language of the contract had to be positive and non-political. We were "consciously editing against the New York Times," said Gingrich.

There was more than one personal note to the proceedings. Rep. Dunne of Washington recalled the first 100 days of the 101st Congress with a mixture of fondness and regret. "It was a wonderful time, an exhilarating time," she said, even as she observed that Republican rhetoric during this historic moment tended to be "harsh" and even "frightening" to some people. Dunne also recalled a long absence from her family and many late nights, including one on which "a young member of one staff was raped on her way home" from the Capitol.

A pugnacious Dick Armey took issue with Republicans ("we did not manage our enthusiasms very well . . .") and Democrats alike ("but we were never as bad as the Democrats in the two years before"). He recalled the slights of naysayers, some in his own party. "A couple of times," he said, "the older guys just humored us." During the Q-and-A after the panel discussion, Armey addressed the question of whether the new Republican majority in the House had ushered in an era of incivility in Washington. "I will not accept that it is the fault of Republicans," he said, calling this a "bum rap." The problem was that "Democrats haven't yet learned to be a docile, compliant minority."

Gingrich demonstrated his trademark smarts and frenetic rhetorical style. Amidst the usual scattering of historical asides and reading notes, he pressed hard for several large points. "You had to have something of this scale to beat the Democratic majority." The new majority wasn't going to be won with a few well-run races; for scale, Gingrich said victory required a breakthrough bigger than a news cycle or even a few news cycles. It was the kind of thing a person would have to devote maybe ten years of their life to, as he had, he said. Victory had required, he also said, an extraordinary degree of coordination among both a core group and throughout the larger team of candidate signatories. Welfare reform, the former speaker remarked, was the signature policy triumph resulting from the '94 elections. "That one victory justified everything we did," he said.