By Robert A. George / Bloomberg Opinion
House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy’s new “Commitment to America,” intends to reassure voters of the GOP’s intentions if they win the majority in Congress in the midterm election. Instead, it reveals a party of commitment-phobes.
The unveiling of the document, with McCarthy surrounded by a contingent of GOP members and candidates in Monongahela, Pa, on Sept. 23, was meant to recall a similar event nearly three decades before. On Sept. 27, 1994, 368 Republican candidates gathered on the steps of the U.S. Capitol behind then-House Minority Whip Newt Gingrich to lay out a 10-point “Contract With America.” The contract promised Republicans would fulfill an ambitious agenda within the first 100 days if they won the House majority (for the first time in 40 years).
It’s convenient to say that the contract “nationalized” midterm elections. But that’s not the whole story. I was working for one House Republican as the contract was announced, and then for Gingrich’s communications shop as the contract was enacted under his leadership as the new speaker, and the contrast between that document and today’s “Commitment” couldn’t be starker.
The contract was groundbreaking; a congressional “class” was doing something usually only seen in parliamentary forms of government: They assembled a platform that went beyond priorities and put in writing a specific list of legislation to be brought to the floor and voted upon within a specific period; and then invited the American people to punish them if they failed.
It focused not just on controversies-of-the-moment, but on big, long-festering issues that commanded 60 percent of public support, presented in legislative language. It included a balanced budget amendment (“Fiscal Responsibility Act”), welfare reform (“Personal Responsibility Act”), congressional term limits (“Citizen Legislature Act”), tax and regulatory reform (“Job Creation and Wage Enforcement Act”); as well as a preamble reforming how Congress (the House, at least) conducted its affairs. It avoided more controversial social issues, such as abortion. Given a skeptical GOP Senate and a Democratic president, not every contract item became law. Nonetheless, significant elements did; most notably welfare reform.
Its specificity was useful in many ways, offering more than just a platform and more than one message. It was a “contract” offered to a nation grown weary of politicians’ broken promises. This was just four years after President George H.W. Bush broke one of the must clear-cut political promises in American history. After declaring in his 1988 nomination acceptance speech, “Read my lips, no new taxes,” Bush reversed himself in a 1990 deficit-reduction deal with the Democrats.
That deal split the Republicans in Congress. Gingrich, then the House minority whip, led a conference rebellion against his own leader, Rep. Bob Michel, who supported the president. Bush’s broken vow would contribute to Ross Perot’s third-party run — partly over fiscal issues — and, eventually, his own re-election defeat.
Thus, the contract’s tagline: advertised in TV Guide: “A campaign promise is one thing. A signed contract is another.” The document also provided a crucial unifying blueprint — “marching orders,” as it were — for the first three months of the term that all House Republicans, moderate or conservative, could support.
The “Commitment to America” falls flat on each of those points.
Far from being a specific, bold legislatively inspired list, McCarthy’s brainchild is a collection of amorphous, uplifting platitudes: “An Economy That’s Strong … A Nation That’s Safe … A Future That’s Built On Freedom … A Government That’s Accountable.” Dig down a little deeper and one discovers, well, more nebulous phrases: “Confront Big Tech and Demand Fairness,” “Achieve Longer, Healthier Lives for Americans.”
The very words, “commitment to America,” are a retread of a 2020 GOP document. How much of a “commitment” can it be if it can’t even claim a concept different than two-year-old promises?
McCarthy’s document also falls short on its predecessor’s secondary message, as a reflection and implicit repudiation of the failures of the most recent one-term president. Contract Republicans realized that Bush’s vow-breaking — “lie” might be too harsh a word — had a political consequence that required addressing in some fashion. Far from repudiating Donald Trump’s “Big Lie” on the election, McCarthy Republicans don’t appear ready to push back against any of the former president falsehoods and exaggerations.
In that sense, it’s a “worthy” successor not to the robust 1994 Contract, but to the 2020 Republican National Convention’s non-existent platform that merely pledged solidarity to whatever Trump approved. Moreover, by including social issues like abortion, while lacking specific actions or a timeline for completing their agenda, there’s little to focus and bind members together. The one notable exception is congressional probes of the Biden administration, which are inevitable when an opposition party takes over.
In short, Gingrich’s contract presented specificity, reflection and bold innovation. McCarthy’s commitment, in contrast, promotes rhetorical vagueness and vaporware.
Yes, Gingrich now supports the “Commitment” despite how much it pales in comparison to his own contract. So McCarthy must be doing something right, no? Alas, that says more about the demands of party loyalty than anything else. The younger Gingrich was a historian happy to lead a principle-based rebellion against a president of his own party. He then proceeded to craft a new founding party document pointing the GOP in a boldly different direction.
Today, in the shadow of a former president dedicated to deception and destruction, Gingrich’s platform-building days are behind him. Like McCarthy, he seems dedicated to the path of least resistance; a path all Americans should fear that Republicans are preparing to take them down.
Robert A. George is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist and member of the editorial board covering government and public policy. Previously, he was a member of the editorial boards of the New York Daily News and New York Post.