It was an indelible image: Sixteen years ago, Newt Gingrich and about 300 Republican candidates for Congress stood outside the Capitol and unveiled the "Contract with America," a 10-point document that laid out a Republican plan for the future, their alternative to 40 years of Democratic rule that they planned to implement within 100 days of taking office. Earlier today, House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, led a group of colleagues in introducing a pledge of their own, one that reiterated their commitment to some of the Republican principles first laid out in 1994, pledges like tax relief and more help for small businesses.
But here's what's been little noted in this much covered event: Boehner and company eschewed the Capitol as a backdrop for their legislative proposals and instead headed to nearby Sterling, Va., to make their announcement at a small, family-owned hardware store and lumber company. And instead of a plan packed with new proposals and ideas, the central message of their pledge was that Congress needed to move backwards -- cancel unspent stimulus funds, repeal the health care bill and cut government spending to pre-stimulus and pre-bailout levels.
The choice of setting and the substance of today's Pledge versus the Contract of yore tells us a lot about where the Republican Party is going. Back in 1994, the authors of the contract went on the offensive with their proposals -- they touted 10 different pieces of legislation which they promised to bring to a vote within 100 days. Now, the party is playing defense by offering proposals, the vast majority of which promise to roll back Democratic legislation and limit the size of government. The Contract's authors could have proposed repealing the Clinton tax hikes or gun control measures. They didn't. Instead, they chose to press forward.
In 1994, House Republicans cut a wide swath with the Contract -- seeking ways to reform the criminal justice system and seriously reduce the number of troops committed to the U.N. This time, it's the economy, stupid. The Pledge includes provisions to reduce government spending and cap discretionary spending. Even the sparse mention of social priorities -- a promise to codify the Hyde Amendment, which bans the use of federal dollars to pay for abortion -- represents a way to reduce government spending.
The focus on government spending is not surprising; the Republicans know they need to appeal to the tea party. The proposals cater to the movement's chief concerns -- reducing the size and spending of government -- and making the announcement from outside Washington sends a clear message: We may be incumbents, but this is not the government we want. We are more like you than we are like them.
The authors of the Pledge also know that they cannot alienate tea party voters by spending too much time on social issues, which are not a priority for them. Talk of codifying the Hyde Amendment and a vague promise in the pledge's preamble to protect traditional marriage are the sole concessions to the religious right, a voting base that may need some reassurance but is a reliable source of support for the party.
Of course, one school of thought says that whether it's a Pledge or a Contract it may not matter. According to a CBS/New York Times poll that was conducted just before the election in 1994, only 29 percent of respondents had even heard of the Contract, and a mere 24 percent of that group said they would be more likely to vote for a candidate who supported it. So it may be all for naught. But it is a good porthole into the GOP mind. Sixteen years ago, after 40 years in the wilderness, they weren't promising the moon, but at least a decent-sized asteroid. This time, the pledges are hardly out of this world.