by Rod D. Martin
October 24, 1997
People may be willing to vote for liars, but they don’t want to. People may be willing to vote for the status quo, but they’d rather embrace a vision. All of our history attests to this, perhaps nothing so well as the Contract With America.
Perhaps the most successful political document in modern history, Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich’s Contract With America literally changed the world. Seventy years of almost unbroken dominance by the Democratic Party were terminated, and an army of idealistic freshmen turned out a pitifully corrupt and scandal-ridden old guard. Even more importantly, the terms of political debate in America were changed overnight: not whether to raise taxes, but how much to cut them; not whether to reform welfare, but how to do it; not whether to balance the budget, but when; the very ideas Americans discussed shifted from left to right in a blink.
The Contract is often lambasted by the left (and by the media, which is all too often the same thing) because much of it wasn’t passed; and it is true that its planks faced both opposition in Bob Dole’s Senate and Bill Clinton’s White House. Yet every commitment in the Contract was fulfilled, which showed for the first time in a long time that there can be such a thing as a political promise kept; and the sections which did not make it past Clinton’s veto pen remain clearly articulated principles for future action, and America can hold the party to them. Such accountability had been missing in Washington for a long time. Moreover, the reforms in the Contract which made it through were a revolution in themselves.
On the very first day of Gingrich’s speakership, the Republicans required — for the first time — that laws applied to the rest of America also apply to Congress. They ordered an outside, independent audit of Congressional waste, fraud and abuse, cut the number of committees, cut staff by a third, term-limited committee chairmen and even Speaker Gingrich, banned proxy voting in committee and required committee meetings be held openly, in public. In short, they reformed a Congress that had become utterly corrupt. And to top it off, they mandated that no tax increase could pass the House without a three-fifths majority. The tax and spend days of yore ground instantly to a screeching halt.
How was this possible? What was so special about this particular piece of paper? There were essentially two things. First, the Contract nationalized the Republican congressional races as never before. In district after district, where for years the biggest question facing underfunded challengers had been “how do you think you can bring home as many goodies as the incumbent,” everything suddenly shifted. Americans had become accustomed to voting for Republican presidential candidates because of issues, and now those same issues were the heart and soul of their congressional races for the very first time. And everywhere in America, and on the national news each night, those issues were hammered away at consistently and persistently. Voters finally had a meaningful choice in what had always before been a sleeper of an election; and that choice gave Republicans a majority.
Second, the Contract established a level of accountability that had been missing in politics for decades. Americans knew exactly what the Republicans stood for, indeed had sworn to. This left no room for the new Congress to waver or lie, and everyone knew it. The Republicans kept their word, and for it they were rewarded with a second term in power, despite the re-election of a Democratic President and the sound defeat of the ideologically-challenged Bob Dole.
The Contract, in short, exchanged the deliberately muddy status quo for a crystal clear vision of change, and replaced the cynically dishonest politics as usual with a new standard of integrity and accountability. This is a winning formula, for the party that embraces it and for every American as well.
And now is the time to do it again.
Going into the 1998 and 2000 races, Republicans have a chance to truly transform America. With a majority in Congress, a majority of governors, a shot at a majority of state legislatures and an excellent chance at regaining the White House, the GOP could truly bring about a revolution as fundamental and all-encompassing as the New Deal. The opportunity must not be missed: the hundred-year experiment with socialism and the welfare state has been a disaster, as much in France and England and Ohio as in Cuba and Russia. People are ready to embrace a better model, and Republicans had best strike while the iron is hot.
The vision must be clear. America has assumed the principles of the other side for so long that careful education in the basics of conservatism is essential. Republicans must explain why tax cuts will help every American, why a welfare state is destructive of the poor, why administrative agencies are unconstitutional, why affirmative action harms those it seeks to help. They must patiently teach their principles, or they will constantly find themselves on the defensive, and any gains they make will be undone later on.
The vision must be comprehensive, because the nanny state has been comprehensive. There is no part of your life not regulated by government today, and a Republican vision must explain its new model for every one of those areas. If government is to be taken out of an area, people need to be told precisely what will fill the gap and why the new way is better. Nothing can be taken for granted.
But above all, the vision must be rooted in principle. Nothing less will work. The Democrats ruled America for most of a century on a set of underlying principles, namely, certain quasi-Marxist views of social justice. They sold their ideas well, taught them to the people, and were rewarded with the leadership they had earned. Conservatives must now do the same. We believe in life, which was given us by God; we believe in liberty to live life without intrusion by criminals or by government run amok; and we believe in the right to pursue happiness, which is to say, the right of every person to compete and do their best, to fail and to win, in living the life they choose. This is a vision that resonates, and it is the vision we must proclaim.
Regardless of the precise issues addressed in the new Contract, the overriding theme must be freedom, and an accountable Republican Party that will stand in integrity, saying what it means and meaning what it says. This is what Americans want from us, and this is what America deserves.