The Magazine

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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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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