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Defying the Odds

Defying the Odds
New book about the 2016 election.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Would a Senate "Contract with America" Make Sense?

A faction of Republicans including Sen. Lindsey Graham is agitating for party leaders to unveil a policy manifesto in the midterm elections, detailing for voters what the GOP would attempt with a Senate majority its members are increasingly confident they’ll achieve.
Advocates of the strategy, which has triggered a closed-door debate in recent weeks among the party’s current 45 senators, say it would serve as a firm rejoinder to Democrats casting the GOP as the “party of no.” They say voters should know what they’d be getting by pulling the lever for Republicans in November.
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The policy agenda would be modeled after the “Contract with America,” the 10-bill document that Republicans campaigned on en route to a historic takeover of the House in 1994.
There are several problems with this approach.

First, when the House Republicans crafted the Contract in 1994, they had not controlled the chamber in forty years.  They were writing on a blank slate, since no one could contrast their promises with their past performance.   Senate Republicans, who had a majority just eight years ago, do not have that luxury. We know what a GOP Senate looks like.

Second, the Contract had the virtue of apparent novelty:  most people in the political community could not remember anything like it.  (Actually, there had been something like it in 1980 -- but few noticed at the time and even fewer could recall it fourteen years later.)   In 2014, a Senate Contract would invite comparisons with the 1994 version, and it would be a challenge to make it as specific and appealing.

Third, as Major Garrett explains in The Enduring Revolution, the drafters of the original contract had plenty of material to work with. Many conservative policy ideas had been circulating for years, and leaders were able to find ten that would unify their ranks and sound good to the general public.  Are there ten such ideas today?  A number of the earlier ideas have either gone into effect (e.g., welfare reform) or become politically problematic.  (The line-item veto lost a lot of Republican fans when Clinton used it.)

Fourth although the individual ideas in the Contract were popular, a pre-election poll found that 71 percent of Americans had never heard of the Contract itself.  On balance, it did some good for the GOP, but it was hardly the silver bullet of Republican mythology.