The Democrats' new Uncontract With America

Following their electoral rout in 1994 and two years of draconian Gingrichism, the Democrats on Capitol Hill are trying to make nice on America, without offending anyone.

Published June 28, 1996 11:57AM (EDT)


"It's a whimper, not a bang," said a House staffer involved in constructing the Democrats' "Families First" program. "Modest," "moderate," "feasible," "realistic," were among the other non-threatening buzz words used by Democrats hoping to worm their way back into the hearts of an electorate that soundly rejected them two years ago.

Introduced last Sunday with less than stirring alarums and almost zero media interest (The New York Times finally took note of it today), the Democrats' agenda could be called the "Uncontract With America"-- partly because it is so unsweeping. And that is the idea.

The goal, laid out by Rep. Richard Gephardt (D-Mo), the House minority leader, and Sen. Tom Daschle (D-S.D.), his opposite number in the Senate, was to devise a grab-bag of initiatives that would not be too ideological, too harsh, too bold, too divisive, too frightening, too controversial, or too substantial. They succeeded admirably.

The package of almost two dozen policy prescriptions embraces the new mainstream Democratic consensus, with calls for a balanced budget that prevents "deep cuts" in Medicare, education and the environment and for welfare reform that doesn't harm "innocent kids." There are a few proposals that would improve the life of working Americans: tax breaks for college education and child care, health plans for children, pension reform, an end to corporate tax preferences for companies that move jobs overseas.

Yet much of the plan is mushy in the details. It says, for example, that Democrats will "require" insurance companies to offer kids-only health plans, but it does not specify how this will be done, what the plans will include, or how much they will cost. Other key provisions
rest upon exhortation, over action. They vow to create voluntary "fair pay" guidelines for companies to "help make sure" women receive equal pay. The one environmental plank calls for corporate leaders to "take responsibility for keeping our families' drinking water safe and our air clean." No mention what the Democrats would do to company executives who fail to heed this call.

Why the soft sell? "We were a little chastened," says another Democratic aide. "Not so much by the (1994) election but by the past Congress. The Republicans had all these different think tanks waiting for years with one constitutional amendment or another. They did not achieve all that much. It's hard to move so far and so fast. Maybe people will look at this and say, 'Hey it's a good thing they're not trying to give us universal health coverage in five seconds.' We did not want to come forward with our brand of extremism to match theirs. People are tired of that."

The Democrats also realized that they needed a "positive" message to complement their assault on Gingrichism. And what could be better than easy-to-support "kitchen-table" matters? But Democratic staffers insist that their party's restraint is not based entirely on cynical calculations. As one put it, "you have to get people's faith back in government. By doing a few simple things -- making it easier to send a kid to school or to a doctor -- we can win people's trust back and then the public will be open to more creative solutions."
As Gephardt confessed, Democrats in the past failed to address the problems of the middle class. During a recent "town hall meeting," he pleaded for another chance: "Our sole and central mission will be to help the middle class families caught in a squeeze." He promised the Democrats will "put special interests last."

But how? The Families First agenda makes no reference to political and campaign finance reform. That leaves Democrats still in the classic fix. They claim they're for the squeezed, but their campaigns are heavily funded by the squeezers. Will the party go after the polluters and pension fund raiders whose contributions augment campaign coffers? What will party chairman Sen. Christopher Dodd (D-Conn.), a beneficiary of insurance company largesse, do if his backers say "no way" to the kids-only health plan?

The Families First agenda allows the Democrats to talk the talk. Whether they can walk the walk while enriching its bank accounts is a contradiction they have yet to resolve. Families First is a whimper. Not a bad whimper, but it's a whimper in the dark.

Quote of the day

Demi Moore's golden globes

"As a matter of principle, I've always thought that critics have no business talking about budgets or salaries; what ought to count is what's on the screen. But here we are, only two weeks after the ghastly fiasco of 'The Cable Guy,' with yet another case of the star's salary being much more interesting, and exuberantly vulgar, than anything the screen reveals...

"All of this calls to mind a story told about Ben Turpin, the cross-eyed star of many Mack Sennett silent comedies. When people would stare at Turpin on the Edendale trolley that he rode to and from his work at the studio, he would point to his eyes and say: 'Ben Turpin! Five hundred dollars a week!... After pulling off this latest coup on behalf of working women she is now entitled to point to her chest and say 'Demi Moore! Twelve-and-a-half million per picture!'"

-- Joe Morgenstern, film critic for The Wall Street Journal, reviewing "Striptease," starring Demi Moore.

By David Corn

David Corn is the Washington editor of the Nation, a columnist for the New York Press and author of a political suspense novel, "Deep Background" (St.Martin's Press).

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