Green Room

Not much of a Pledge to America

posted at 12:50 pm on September 23, 2010 by

Allahpundit did his usual spiffy job at rounding up reax to House Republicans’ “Pledge to America,” which was leaked yesterday. I offer a remix to make a few additional points.

First, Nick Gillespie’s observation that the 1994 Contract With America was not a major factor is dead on. The GOP was fairly sure it would win a majority of House seats months before the Contract was announced. Given that its contents were poll-tested as at least 60% favorable, it was a marginal plus. However, the Contract was less important as a campaign document than as an agenda Newt Gingrich could use to hit the ground running. Moreover, by keeping the (admittedly limited) promises to vote on its contents (particularly the internal reforms, which were the subject of the marathon 100-hour opening session), the GOP could build some confidence with voters that it would do what it said.

This year, with the odds already favoring the GOP regaining a House majority, it is again better to judge the new “Pledge” — which this year’s candidates are not even formally agreeing to support — on the basis of how well it serves as a governing document and potential confidence builder. It is so judged against the backdrop Gillespie describes — a GOP that spent big during the Bush43 era and which has not backed Paul Ryan’s “Roadmap to America’s Future” (Gillespie pooh-poohs the “Roadmap,” but the lack of party backing for it is a marker of where the Republican establishment is at the moment). The other major element is the successes of the Tea Party movement within the GOP, pushing a tough line on reducing federal spending and repealing ObamaCare.

Judged against these political dynamics, the Pledge has a major problem. Unlike Erick Erickson, it does not bother me that the Pledge lacks calls for a Spending Limitation Amendment or a Balanced Budget Amendment. Holding votes on Constitutional amendments the GOP will not have the votes to pass, even by the most favorable estimates, is a replay of theater from 1995.

However, Erickson is right to fault the Pledge for its milquetoast generalities about reducing spending. Indeed, the Pledge indicts its own authors on this score, if you read it carefully. Page 5 of the leaked version of the Pledge states:

With common-sense exceptions for seniors, veterans, and our troops, we will roll back government spending to pre-stimulus, pre-bailout levels, saving us at least $100 billion in the first year alone and putting us on a path to balance the budget and pay down the debt. We will also establish strict budget caps to limit federal spending from this point forward.

We will launch a sustained effort to stem the relentless growth in government that has occurred over the past decade. By cutting Congress’ budget, imposing a net hiring freeze on non-security federal employees, and reviewing every current government program to eliminate wasteful and duplicative programs, we can curb Washington’s irresponsible spending habits and reduce the size of government, while still fulfilling our necessary obligations.

The second paragraph admits that government spending soared during the Bush43 era, including six years of a GOP-controlled Congress. But the first paragraph only commits to “pre-stimulus, pre-bailout” levels of spending, with exceptions for groups includng seniors, which looks to take entitlement reform off the table. In fairness, there is some very vague (deliberately so, I would wager) language on page 11 of the leaked Pledge that suggests a GOP Congress may at least put Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid’s long-term unfunded liabilities on budget, which would make our looming fiscal trainwreck harder to ignore. Even so, the Pledge’s approach on sending seems like fairly weak tea.

Oh, yes… tea. The point here is that on spending (and to a lesser degree with the “repeal / replace” approach to ObamaCare), it is difficult to see the Pledge appealing much to Tea Partiers as a campaign document, a governing document or a confidence builder. On this crucial point, the Pledge reads like a political calculation that the voters’ discontent is primarily directed at the past two years of Beltway overreach and that whatever mandate the GOP may receive in November extends no further than that.

It is easy enough to understand the cost-benefit analysis behind such a calculation. A bolder Pledge would open GOP candidates to Democratic demagogy. Boldness might further fuel Tea Party enthusiasm, but how much more eager can they get at this point? On the other hand, polls instruct the House GOP that swing voters are more enthused about voting against Democrats than for Republicans. Beyond the election, Pres. Obama will still be holding the veto pen, raising the risk of over-promising.

However, the fact that I can see those arguments does not change the fact that a lot of Tea Partiers — activists and candidates alike — will not be interested in them. They may reject them on principle. They may reject them on the idea that the GOP leaders’ concerns are based on the Pledge as a campaign document, when it should be seen more as a governing document. They can point to the Contract as an example, or even note that voters did not notice or care that Obama ran on a left-wing platform, because they were fed up with the failures (real and imagined) of the Bush43 Republicans.

The House GOP leadership might turn that last point around, noting that both the Contract and especially the Obama platform show that key voting blocs tend to resist sudden, big changes. They could argue that until the GOP is handed a majority like that the Democrats got in 2008, the better course is to give voters the gridlock they want and pick battles to frame future elections.

If this back-and-forth sounds vaguely familiar, it is because it echoes the arguments thrashed out in the Delaware Senate primary. Stand fast to principles, even if it risks over-reaching and losing, or focus on the winnable fights in a struggle that really has no defined endpoint?

The rise of the Tea Party was driven in no small part by failures in political leadership, particularly Republican leadership. The political task of Republican leadership now is to reconcile the demands of the Tea Party (and, more broadly, the small-government base of the GOP) with the limits imposed by a divided government and the need to attract swing voters who are voting more for gridlock than they are for Republicans. There is not much in the Pledge to suggest the House GOP has figured out how to square that circle.

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That’s ok. We’ve learned now that we can hold feet to fire and get what we want, more or less.

Kissmygrits on September 23, 2010 at 3:25 PM

Disagree about the Contract and its 1994 effects — while the GOP’s internal polling may have been saying they were in good shape, the conventional wisdom inside and outside the Beltway was that the Democrats would maintain control of both the House and Senate (Robert Novak was scoffed at by Al Hunt, Mark Shields and Margaret Carlson three weeks before the election when he made the prediction of a House-Senate takeover by the Republicans).

So the Contract had a major effect at least on the narrative of the ’94 election and its aftermath. The problem of course is you can only go to the well like that once and earn wholehearted praise or trust from your side if you don’t follow through, which the GOP didn’t after the 1998 midterm elections. So the new plan comes across as less fresh, while the voters are more cynical that the GOP is only talking a good game to get back into power, and will return to their 1999-2006 ways once back in power.

jon1979 on September 23, 2010 at 3:32 PM

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Allahpundit on September 23, 2010 at 8:02 PM