Another midterm election will soon be upon us, and that means it’s time for eager Republicans to dust off one of their favorite decades-old political tropes: the Contract With America. Lindsey Graham, who was part of the 1994 Republican wave that witnessed the birth of the original Contract, wants to recapture that magic with a 2014 version of the document that will let voters know what the GOP intends to do with the Senate majority, should they win it.
Graham’s thinking makes sense, sort of. The Republicans are poised to win a few Senate seats in states where incumbent Democrats are fighting structural disadvantages, and it’s in their interest to convince anyone silly enough to listen that they actually have a national mandate to repeal the Affordable Care Act or cut taxes forever. A “Contract With America” is a ham-fisted way of nationalizing those races – it says “America” right there in the title, after all.
That’s precisely what Newt Gingrich and Dick Armey did when they unveiled the original Contract With America six weeks before the 1994 midterm election. The Republicans were poised to make huge gains, so they slapped together an agenda and told reporters after the fact that they’d been swept to power on a national mandate to prohibit welfare assistance to teen mothers under the age of 18 (a provision of the original Contract). The Contract itself had little impact on the Republicans’ success at the polls; only 31 percent of voters had even heard of the Contract by late October 1994.
But it’s since attained this mythic status as the most potent device of electoral persuasion ever devised. As such, whenever Republicans think they have a chance at a pretty good election cycle, out comes the “new” Contract With America.
In late September 2010, not long before the Tea Party wave, the Republicans unveiled the “Pledge to America,” a gauzy and unspecific “plan” for taking the country back from Barack Obama and the socialists. It was a long-form recitation of rote GOP policy positions – taxes bad, spending bad (military excluded), Obamacare double-plus bad – paired with inspiring photos of cowboys and Mt. Rushmore. The newly empowered Republicans broke a bunch of the promises (Obamacare was not repealed, taxes were raised on the wealthy), and went on to lose House and Senate seats in 2012.
Speaking of 2012, that election featured yet another resurrection of the Contract With America, but at the presidential level. Newt Gingrich’s campaign unveiled a revamped version of the document he authored nearly two decades earlier, in which he called for (you guessed it) cutting taxes, cutting spending and repealing Obamacare. The fate of the Newt 2012 campaign doesn’t need to be revisited.
Now Lindsey Graham wants to be the newest heir to this proud legacy and put together his own toothless, pro-forma statement of long-established Republican principles. What’s funny about Graham’s push is that in trying to demonstrate GOP unity going into the elections, he’s fracturing the Senate Republican caucus. According to Politico:
But the idea has met a cool reception from other senators, including some in leadership such as Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who faces a tough reelection race this year. Skeptics say it would be difficult to unite ideologically diverse candidates around a uniform set of ideas and argue the plan would give Democrats a fat target to attack. Better, they say, to keep the focus squarely on the shortcomings of President Barack Obama and his party than to make promises Republicans might not be able to keep.
“Even if we have a good election, President Obama is still going to be president,” Sen. John Cornyn, the minority whip from Texas, said when asked if his party should unveil a Contract with America-style agenda this year. “I don’t think we should be in the business of over-promising.”
There’s no reason to think that Graham and his supporters will come up with anything beyond the typical “cut taxes, cut spending, kill Obamacare” nonsense that has defined recent iterations of the Contract. But even this is too hard a sell for Republicans who don’t want to get caught with anything resembling a governing agenda.