Updated at 5:00 p.m.
Moments before House Republican leaders were to present the final draft of their "Pledge to America" to the members of their conference, Barry Jackson was headed down the grand marble staircase from the Capitol Rotunda to a basement meeting room. As a congressional aide of long standing who now works for Minority Leader John Boehner, Jackson understood that his power lies in a delicate mix of great influence and well-cultivated anonymity; he thought he could make the trip unobtrusively.
But a New York Times reporter intercepted Jackson and asked him a question that spoke both to his power and his prominence. "What is your role with Mr. Boehner," Jackson was asked. "I'm his chief of staff," Jackson responded, nonchalantly. Accurate, but not entirely true.
Jackson is the only person in America who had a hand in drafting both the Contract With America (the House Republicans' 1994 manifesto) and the Pledge to America that the party unveiled on Thursday, and he is therefore a reminder of the GOP's reversal of fortunes over the past decade and a half. Jackson worked for Boehner in 1994 when the two-term member of Congress was brought into then-Minority Leader Newt Gingrich's inner circle after Bill Clinton's 1992 election as president.
Inside the meeting room, HC-5, House Republicans heard the presentation. When it was over, one member who almost never speaks at such events was the first to approach the microphones. "This is focused on jobs. This is just what we need," said Rep. Candice Miller of Michigan's 10th District, home to two-thirds of Macomb County, a national political bellwether since 1960.
Jackson and Miller are more than just bit players in the development and selling of the pledge. Together, they are important markers along the arc of a party that rose to congressional power in 1994, squandered that power by 2006, and, more recently, has been going through tortured acts of political absolution to regain control of the House.
Miller was elected in 2002, the 9/11-influenced midterm where President Bush defied historical trends and saw his party gain seats in the House. Miller proudly called herself a "George W. Bush Republican" in that first campaign. She later aggressively lobbied -- too aggressively, according to an admonishment from the Ethics Committee -- fellow Michigan Republican Nick Smith to back Bush's Medicare prescription bill. Many conservative activists then, and no shortage of tea party activists now, consider the Medicare law the fiscal nadir of the Bush presidency and an act of betrayal by congressional Republicans who had promised to control spending. (In actuality, the Medicare law has proved to be less expensive than projections at the time, a fact frequently lost in the debate.)
Jackson was at the '94 revolution and Miller was a foot soldier for Bush's "compassionate conservatism." Both know now that their party has to make amends. The question: Is the Pledge to America the answer?
Unlike the '94 contract, this year's pledge has no timelines, no pledge-specific legislation, and no bold reform proposal. It has legislation behind it, but many of the bills have been sitting around for months generating little momentum or political buzz. The document contains no lofty goals such as balancing the budget or ending welfare as we know it.
Back then, Republicans were united and committed to 10 legislative items that had full-blown bills attached to each plank. They had a self-imposed deadline of 100 days to vote on each matter and a rock-ribbed pledge to seek a balanced federal budget--among other ambitious goals.
So, is this pledge a path toward Republican governance, a road map to confrontation with the Obama White House? Is it a political turning point or a trifle in an angry season where the die has long been cast and strategy has been rendered largely irrelevant?
Answers vary, but one theme is telling. Some Republicans very close to the process say that if the House GOP leadership had its way today, it wouldn't have introduced the pledge at all--it may be more trouble than it's worth, and the party may not need it. "When this started, the idea was to have something to rally around, something to use, to push back with and say Republicans were not disorganized and had an agenda," said one Republican close to the drafting process. "But now, it looks like the wave is rising and there is a subliminal feeling, 'Hey, we really don't need this anymore.' I mean, all the consultants around town are saying, 'You're up in the polls. Just say you're not a Democrat and leave it at that.' The question has been, do we win 60 seats with no plan, or win 45 or 50 with a really clear agenda? It's been a debate about which way to go."
There was no such ambivalence in 1994, and that is one indication of how much has changed for the party in 16 years. Another big difference from '94 has been who had influence on and access to the drafting process. Back then, K Street lobbyists paid no attention to the Contract With America, ignoring it as the sandbox folly of a permanent House minority. This year, K Street has paid close attention, and some Republicans wonder whether those pressures led the pledge's authors to water down the economic platform to little more than a few simple asks: preserving the Bush tax cuts, trimming federal regulations, and dangling a small-business tax cut. The pledge says nothing about expanding trade, nothing about cutting corporate welfare.
There's similar concern that lobbyist pressure might have weakened efforts to confront entitlement spending. The pledge promises only to put the costs of Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid in the annual budget. This is clearly a move to shape the budget debate by including entitlement spending. But such an idea is tepid compared with an April 2008 recommendation by a bipartisan group of high-profile budget analysts (Democrats Alice Rivlin, Bill Galston, Rudolph Penner, and Robert Reischauer to name just a few) who called for automatic changes in entitlement spending each year to reduce benefits or increase premiums, or to raise taxes to bring entitlement costs down.
Republican leaders deny that K Street peered over their shoulders or managed the process. The pledge is their work product and their closing argument to the voters.
Even so, these leaders are giving GOP candidates -- members and challengers -- wide latitude to use all, a little, or none of the manifesto.
"I'm not going to tell them what to be for," said Rep. Pete Sessions of Texas, chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee. "We'll let them make their own decisions."
The pledge process began in the summer of 2008, when Boehner appointed Rep. Kevin McCarthy of California as the House member of the GOP Platform Committee. No one remembers that document, but the struggles with Senate Republicans and John McCain's campaign gave McCarthy the experience to take on a similar project for 2010--when he and Boehner knew that Republicans needed to have something to say to voters.
House Republicans were so discredited by their own party faithful at the end of the Bush presidency that they had no choice but to at least partially hand the keys over to tea party activists and other GOP disaffected, said Michael Franc, vice president of government relations at the Heritage Foundation.
This unsettling realization led to the creation of "America Speaking Out," a Web-based suggestion box (ridiculed by Democrats as a gimmick) for policy alternatives. It was followed by "You Cut," another Web suggestion box (derided by Democrats as a gimmick to the third power) meant to harness the anti-spending zeitgeist of the tea party movement and mainline Republicans who had given up on the party hierarchy. (The pledge contains a promise to take You Cut ideas to the House floor as well as a Speaking Out suggestion of including constitutional justification for every bill that comes before the House.) Rank-and-file Republicans were ordered to tout these suggestion boxes at town hall meetings. They were given another order: Shut up. "We told them to listen and listen and listen," a top GOP leadership aide said.
In addition, McCarthy had more than 20 fellow Republicans involved in idea discussions and issue-generating task forces (somewhat similar to the model Gingrich used for the '94 Contract With America). GOP leaders conducted 10 "listening sessions" about the pledge's contents to collect member-by-member priorities and distill what they were hearing back home. But through it all, House Republicans knew that they were not in charge of this process. They may be the messenger, but in former President Bush's memorable phrase, they were not "the decider."
That's because the "pledge" was drafted under Boehner's careful guidance by Jackson; his staff director Mike Sommers; Neil Bradley of Minority Whip Eric Cantor's staff; and the staff directors of the minority staffs on the Ways and Means, Appropriations, Judiciary, and Armed Services committees.
"It's been a very close hold," one top Republican said. "It's the insurgency of '94 model versus the corporate model of 2010."
The question now is whether this model can save the party. Will Republicans rally around bills that have already been in the House hopper for a year? Will they snap into action without deadlines? Is an unsigned, discretionary pledge something that will galvanize people into action after the party balloons have been popped?
Grover Norquist, another contract-era veteran of GOP politics and grassroots activism, says that it will for one reason -- the incoming class of freshmen will tolerate nothing less.
"There's been plenty of unsolicited advice," Norquist says. "Yes, a few people have been organizing it, but many people have been advising and suggesting. These ideas have been tested more granularly than through focus groups because they came from the electorate itself. The Republicans could have 60 new members, all of them coming out of a cauldron of being yelled at for two years by the tea party people."
What the nation will soon discover is whether the pledge is a coherent, comprehensive response to that noise, that passion -- or a muffled bit of sloganeering that mimics the moment but fails to reshape policy, politics, or the Obama agenda in any significant way.
This article appears in the September 25, 2010 edition of National Journal Magazine Contents.