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A New Contract with America?

It won’t matter much in November, but it could help afterwards.

Sep 27, 2010, Vol. 16, No. 02 • By JAY COST
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With the midterm elections less than two months away, the prospects for a Republican takeover of the House of Representatives are very good. But could they be better? Shouldn’t the party put forward a positive agenda, akin to 1994’s Contract with America, if it wants to repeat the sweeping victories it enjoyed that year?

A New Contract with America?

Newt Gingrich addressing GOP Congressional candidates, September 1994

AP

Probably not. But there is still a strong case to be made for a new contract.

The Contract with America was unique in the history of electioneering—a written, concise statement signed by more than 300 party candidates that outlined a 10-point reform agenda. Nothing like that has happened before or since, and yet one party or another has been winning blowout elections periodically for nearly 200 years. In fact, opposition parties tend to be downright ambiguous about their plans, intentionally so. When the electorate is inclined to vote for you, it can be risky to give it something specific, as the details might actually alienate some swing voters. There is no better example of such strategic ambiguity than Franklin Roosevelt’s 1932 campaign, which was full of vague and even conflicting promises. Yet that did not stop him from trouncing Herbert Hoover and bringing more than 300 House Democrats into office on his coattails.

Generally speaking, midterm congressional elections hinge on evaluations of the president. If voters think he is doing a bad job, they are going to be heavily predisposed to the opposition, which will thus enjoy a low threshold for victory. Oftentimes, it is sufficient for the opposition to say nothing more than, “Vote for us because we’ll oppose the president.” The 1994 midterm was no exception. That year, the exit polls indicated that 80 percent of all voters who disapproved of President Clinton voted Republican while 80 percent of all voters who approved of him voted Democratic. In other words, 1994, like most midterms, came down to the president, not anything the GOP did.

This assertion might come as a bit of a surprise. After all, that election shocked just about everybody when it happened. Few pundits expected the GOP to pick up enough seats to win the House, let alone the 52 the Republicans actually did win. What’s more, political science models of electoral outcomes were quite wide of the mark that year. So doesn’t this unprecedented outcome require some unprecedented cause, like the Contract with America?

Not really. In retrospect, the “Republican Revolution” has come to look quite typical. The 1994 midterms resulted in 150 Republican-held seats in the north and west. By historical standards, this was consistent with previous good Republican cycles, like 1966 and 1980. The position of Clinton in 1994 was indeed similar to that of Lyndon Johnson in 1966 and Jimmy Carter in 1980 in that all three were under 50 percent job approval and had high disapproval ratings. So it’s no surprise that, in the north and west, the GOP would bounce back to that level.

But the GOP won more seats nationwide in 1994 than in 1966 and 1980, thanks to unprecedented gains in the south. Republicans won just 23 southern seats in 1966 and 39 seats in 1980, but in 1994 they pulled in a whopping 64 southern seats, which gave the party a regional majority for the first time since 1874. It’s possible that the Contract with America had something to do with the GOP’s smashing success in the south, but 1994 has since turned out to be a step along the way in a decades-long march toward Republican dominance of Dixie, so that by 2004 the GOP would take better than three-fifths of all southern House seats. Even in the Republican defeat in 2006, the GOP still won more southern seats than it did after the 1994 midterm.

In other words, we do not really need the Contract with America to explain the 1994 midterm. Instead, most of the results can be accounted for by combining a typical wave election in the north and west with the ongoing southern realignment.

Beyond that, the substance of the Contract with America suggests that it probably did not pack much of an electoral punch. After all, the contract was not so much a break with the Republican past as it was an updating of the core GOP message: a balanced budget, pro-growth and pro-family tax cuts, welfare and entitlement reform, tough crime laws, and tort reform. The core philosophy behind the contract’s specific proposals has connected Republicans dating back to William McKinley in 1896. The only twist on the Republican message was a call for reforms of the governing process—items like term limits, the end of budgetary gimmicks, and open committee hearings. Generally speaking, voters were not learning anything new about the Republican party from the contract so much as they were being reminded of why they had backed the GOP in years past.

Yet even though the contract probably had just a marginal effect on the November elections, it still had value. It was a blueprint for the Republicans in Congress, a straightforward plan of action that gave the GOP majority meaning and purpose. The real worth of the contract was in governing, not electioneering. 

The authors of the Federalist Papers predicted that Congress would drive the political process—but Hamilton, Madison, and Jay never counted on the invention of television. The presidency has an extraordinary advantage in this day and age because a single human being occupies it, and he can communicate to the mass public in a clear and direct fashion. Congress cannot speak to the nation like this because it consists of 535 different, often conflicting, voices. And so, even though the Constitution vests in Congress almost all of the powers over domestic life, the occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue is the “leader” of the nation.

But not in 1995. That year, Bill Clinton had to hold a press conference to defend his relevance. That year, perhaps for the first time since the administration of the hapless Andrew Johnson, Congress and not the president dominated the political landscape. For that, Republicans can thank the Contract with America. It unified the congressional GOP, and thus empowered Newt Gingrich to speak on behalf of the congressional majority in a way that none of his predecessors ever really could. This dramatically cut down on the institutional advantages President Clinton enjoyed. For a time, Gingrich was every bit Clinton’s rival, requesting and receiving prime time on CBS in the spring of 1995 to address the American people. It was not until the budget battle of 1995-96 that the president was able to regain control over the national conversation.

This suggests that there could be value in a new Contract with America for 2010. It probably will not help win the Republicans any additional seats in November, but it might help the party sustain its momentum coming out of the midterm. The formal powers of the American presidency are paltry, especially when it comes to domestic reforms. Yet the office’s informal powers are awesome, vastly outstripping those of the Congress. Republicans should expect Obama to use every advantage he has, and they need to be ready.

To counter the president effectively, congressional Republicans will have to stick together. They will need to unite and stay united so that House speaker John Boehner will have the authority to articulate the will of the House majority, just as Speaker Gingrich once did. That is perhaps the only way to counter the advantage President Obama enjoys simply by virtue of being the president. To that end, a second Contract with America, one that articulates a legislative program that all Republicans can proudly get behind, would be an asset to the Grand Old Party.

Jay Cost is a staff writer at The Weekly Standard.


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