In Search of Lost Principle

The Republicans could benefit from rereading their two-page masterpiece.


For a long time conservative rhetoric used to make me fall asleep early. When some Bob Grant fulmination on WABC-AM would go on too long, my eyes would close so quickly that I had not even time to say to myself, "I'm falling asleep." Half an hour later the thought that it was time to restore the bonds of trust between the people and their elected representatives would awaken me; I would make as if to turn off the radio, which I imagined was now playing the Jay Diamond show, and to turn out the light. I had gone on thinking, while I was asleep, about what I had just been hearing, but these thoughts had taken a strange turn; it seemed to me that I myself was the subject of my dreams: a well-policed street, a balanced budget, the rivalry between job creation and wage enhancement.

When American voters threw, in the words of the late Peter Jennings, "a temper tantrum" in November 1994, I was too steeped in Chupacabra-coverup and Andy Kaufman assassination theories to doubt the official story of the election results. According to the conventional wisdom, the Republican Party's 54-seat gain in Bill Clinton's first midterm elections had occurred thanks to the much-discussed Contract With America. This document, in which the Republicans pledged to enact eight reforms to the legislative process and pass 10 conservative bills (very small parts of which overlapped with limited-government goals), was signed by all but two current and aspiring GOP representatives. (One of the refuseniks was Alaska's lifelong anti-reformer Don Young.)

The contract's Frank Luntz–tested contents were a rebuke to both a Democratic House then under the control of cannibalistic space alien Tom Foley and, more important, to the misrule of President Bill Clinton. The subsequent GOP landslide seemed to justify even the most outlandish claims that the Republicans were now the dynamic, forwardlooking party, and that congressional elections could be organized as national referenda not only on process and politics but on style. For a moment in the 1990s, perhaps in the clauses of a Russ Smith "Mugger" column in the New York Press or between the covers of some visionary tract by Newt Gingrich explaining the benefits of private mining expeditions to Titan, the Republicans became cool.

Time, that machine which takes the raw material of eager youth and crafts it into bitter age, has not been kind to the contract or to its drafters. Only one of the self-dubbed "Just Us Chickens" gang of upstarts who wrote the original text—Minority Leader John Boehner of Ohio—remains prominent in the House of Representatives. Others have gone down to resignation, scandal, defeat, ignominy, or, in the case of Texan Tom DeLay, all of the above.

The legend of the Contract With America's electoral power has faded as well. Exit polling at the time demonstrated that most Republican voters were not even aware of the contract's existence. The landslide that returned the Democrats to control of both houses of Congress in 2006 demonstrated that you can win big without either style or a positive agenda. And Barack Obama's presidential victory last year proved you can win with no agenda at all.

And yet the contract still functions as a sort of Madeleine dipped in tea for political diehards. From a distance of nearly 15 years, Gingrich's once-bold plan appears bland, humble, disappointing in its content, yet rendered beautiful by the waters of sorrow that have passed it by. It succeeds as a work of literature much the way it succeeded as a political tract: in spite of itself.

When The Washington Post's Libby Copeland searched for shorthand to describe Libertarian presidential candidate Bob Barr's disaffection with his former party, she said the GOP had "moved 180 degrees from the small-government philosophy that was at the core of the Republicans' 1994 'Contract With America.'" In fact, the small government portion of the contract was limited mostly to the first bill it promised to pass: the Fiscal Responsibility Act, a balanced budget/tax limitation amendment that would have included a legislative line-item veto "to restore fiscal responsibility to an out-of-control Congress." The House Republicans did pass this bill, but a hard-hearted observer, unmoved by the poetry of it all, might point out that the legislation was predestined to die in the Senate (which it promptly did, by a two-thirds vote)—and that the line-item veto so clearly violates the constitutional separation of powers that it never would have withstood judicial review.

Other parts of the contract emphasized toughness on crime, increases in (or "restoration" of) military spending, and tax and welfare changes that were geared more toward social engineering than government reduction. (Parts of the Personal Responsibility Act did end up forming the nucleus of the 1996 welfare reform.) So if it was of very limited ideological value, and even of dubious election-winning value, what (other than brevity, always a good sign in a political document) is the Contract With America's enduring appeal?

I felt something on a recent rereading, my first in more than a decade. No sooner had the document's warm promises, its herniated attempts at Jeffersonian rhetoric, touched my eyes than a shudder ran through my whole body, an exquisite pleasure invading my senses. At once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory. I had ceased now to feel mediocre, accidental, mortal. Whence could it have come to me, this all-powerful joy?

It was not any affection for the contents but rather for the idea that sometime back in the late 20th century, this seemed like the kind of thing politicians were supposed to do. The idea of a group of election-grubbing politicians conceding, even celebrating, the limits of their own power, the idea of their doing so in a signed and legal-sounding document, attain the radiance of a past that is irretrievable. But that past is still worth remembering. For the same reason the gods must go on, the Republicans must rediscover the contract—not because I believe in it but because they do. With its self-aware simplicity, its trappings of accountability, and its acknowledgement (so easy for a party long out of power) that the mechanics of the legislative process are nearly as evil as the laws that get passed, the Contract With America is the one bestseller of yore that GOP hopefuls should take a fresh look at this year.

In defeat, in fear of losing even the social conservative rump that remains to them, touching widely separated years, the Republicans can only benefit from stepping outside the physical space of meanly lost elections and back to the dimension of principle, where they once hoped to stand like giants immersed in time.

Contributing Editor Tim Cavanaugh writes from Los Angeles.