Tuesday, November 3, 2009

the true value of the 1994 Contract with America

On the night of two tremendous victories for Republicans in the governor's races in NJ and especially VA, it seems like a good time to reprint excerpts of this rant from Tim Cavanaugh in Reason...

According to the conventional wisdom, the Republican Party’s 54-seat gain in Bill Clinton’s first midterm elections had occurred thanks to the much-discussed Contract With America. This document, in which the Republicans pledged to enact eight reforms to the legislative process and pass 10 conservative bills (very small parts of which overlapped with limited-government goals), was signed by all but two current and aspiring GOP representatives. (One of the refuseniks was Alaska’s lifelong anti-reformer Don Young.)

...Time, that machine which takes the raw material of eager youth and crafts it into bitter age, has not been kind to the contract or to its drafters. Only one of the self-dubbed “Just Us Chickens” gang of upstarts who wrote the original text—Minority Leader John Boehner of Ohio—remains prominent in the House of Representatives. Others have gone down to resignation, scandal, defeat, ignominy, or, in the case of Texan Tom DeLay, all of the above.

The legend of the Contract With America’s electoral power has faded as well. Exit polling at the time demonstrated that most Republican voters were not even aware of the contract’s existence. The landslide that returned the Democrats to control of both houses of Congress in 2006 demonstrated that you can win big without either style or a positive agenda. And Barack Obama’s presidential victory last year proved you can win with no agenda at all....

So if it was of very limited ideological value, and even of dubious election-winning value, what (other than brevity, always a good sign in a political document) is the Contract With America’s enduring appeal?

I felt something on a recent rereading, my first in more than a decade....It was not any affection for the contents but rather for the idea that sometime back in the late 20th century, this seemed like the kind of thing politicians were supposed to do. The idea of a group of election-grubbing politicians conceding, even celebrating, the limits of their own power, the idea of their doing so in a signed and legal-sounding document, attain the radiance of a past that is irretrievable. But that past is still worth remembering....the Republicans must rediscover the contract—not because I believe in it but because they do....


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