Politics

In Search of Lost Principle

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

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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.

NEXT: Out of Print

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  1. Blame the Republicans. It’s always the GOP’s fault. It’s never the fault of libertarians.

    Hey, fellow libertarians, perhaps we should look in the mirror. The public ain’t buying what we’re selling.

    Instead of bitchin’ and complaining at the GOP, perhaps we should work on selling our hardcore free market agenda a little more in the mainstream media, which would allow the GOP a little breathing room on their Right flank.

    As it is, the media’s story line is that it’s the “Republicans who are the extremist government slashers,” all the while ignoring us libertarians, who want to slash government even more than the GOP.

    Let’s lose the Reason-inspired cynicism, always bashing the Republican Party, while ignoring the Democrats and the liberal media, and let’s turn out guys on our real enemies – The Left.

  2. You mean a “contract on America”.

  3. Dondo, Reason can’t escape their West Coast origins. A good New Year’s resolution for the staff would be to show restraint when reporting on the libertarian leanings of Western Democrats. How many times must they be bitten in the ass to understand that Democrats fucking hate free minds and free markets?

  4. Off topic, but isn’t it funny that the only candidate Obama can find to be the Director of the CIA is another Clinton Chief of Staff. Apparently, if you haven’t been a Clinton fixer in the past you need not apply in the hope/change administration.

  5. Interesting timing to write about the Contract with America as humanevents.com yesterday charged that Pelosi is working to re-write House rules to do away with the transparencies and healthy discourse the document pleaded for.

    http://www.humanevents.com/article.php?id=30143

    Have to agree that the real enemy is the dems – living in Mass, we deal with ridiculous closed-door ‘we-know-better-than-you’ politics that dem majority rule brings – now we have to deal with it on the fed level as well.

  6. Donderoooooooooooooo!

  7. Ahhh, the pudgy mustachioed sycophant from Texas is at it again!

  8. “Blame the Republicans. It’s always the GOP’s fault. It’s never the fault of libertarians.”

    Couldn’t have said it better myself. If you had stopped there you might have actually made sense for once.

  9. And Barack Obama’s presidential victory last year proved you can win with no agenda at all.

    Priceless.

  10. “Let’s lose the Reason-inspired cynicism, always bashing the Republican Party, while ignoring the Democrats and the liberal media, and let’s turn out guys on our real enemies – The Left.”

    The Republican party is a leftist party Dondero. If Republicans actually believed in the free market they wouldn’t have nationalized the finance industry & handed out corporate welfare to GM & Chrysler.

  11. It’s all marketing, ideology and principles don’t matter anymore. The same country that went for Obama went for Bush 4 years ago.

  12. …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.)

    Welfare reform *was* the Contract’s great success, both fiscally and socially. It was very effective in getting people off the dole, and it stopped welfare from financially rewarding families for breaking up. (Clinton gets some credit, but Gingrich held Clinton’s feet to the fire.)

    Now if we could just find a leader with enough vision to do the same thing for corporate welfare. I know, not during a recession, we need to print money for corporations and people to dig ditches and for others to fill the ditches in.

  13. That third paragraph from the bottom is so over-the-top rediculous in its verbosity that I struggle to not to chuckle at the flamboyant use of language.

    The “we know better than you” style of politics permeates both major parties right now. Sure, historically the Dems have been more culpable, but the general attitude seems omnipresent. I think reason criticizes the Right because they believe they are poised to change policy. The Left, on the other hand, seems much more hostile (though with different rhetoric) to free minds and free markets.

    Still, free minds and free markets are inherently in opposition to any power-seeking governmental body.

  14. The text of the “Contract” is here.
    http://www.house.gov/house/Contract/CONTRACT.html

    Tim might have noticed that in the Contract House Republicans didn’t promise to “pass” any legislation at all if they won a majority, only bring it to a vote. They did promise to enact procedural reforms affecting the House only. Not overly ballsy, one might say.

    But it was brilliant packaging for Newt Gingrich, who, for a brief, shining moment established himself as the go-to guy for the whole damn USA, before he decided to impeach Bill Clinton for lying about cheating on his wife while Newt was, of course, cheating on his wife. Nothing but class!

  15. I don’t believe that’s the REAL Dondero. He disappears for five months and then comes back just in time to post first?

  16. “Blame the Republicans. It’s always the GOP’s fault. It’s never the fault of libertarians.

    Hey, fellow libertarians, perhaps we should look in the mirror. The public ain’t buying what we’re selling.

    Instead of bitchin’ and complaining at the GOP, perhaps we should work on selling our hardcore free market agenda a little more in the mainstream media, which would allow the GOP a little breathing room on their Right flank.

    As it is, the media’s story line is that it’s the “Republicans who are the extremist government slashers,” all the while ignoring us libertarians, who want to slash government even more than the GOP.

    Let’s lose the Reason-inspired cynicism, always bashing the Republican Party, while ignoring the Democrats and the liberal media, and let’s turn out guys on our real enemies – The Left.”

    niiice, try, paleo. the last thing libertarians need is to have more of their ideas and principles attached (and crushed)to a dorment party that won’t practice them just make them look ugly to the rest of the country (ie. deregulation).

  17. And Barack Obama’s presidential victory last year proved you can win with no agenda at all.

    What? Hope and Change isn’t an agenda?
    Cavanaugh gets it right here. The Republicans once talked a good game, and with a Democrat in the White House did a little good for a while. But they started betraying us on day 101, and the past eight years have governed so despicably I’m looking forward to the return of New Deal Democrat rule by comparison.

    Fuck the GOP and all who have a kind word for them. They’ve fucked us.

  18. all the while ignoring us libertarians, who want to slash government even more than unlike the GOP.

    Fixed.

    Have you been paying ANY attention at all to the massive growth in government since 2000?

    Or before 2000?

    Neither party has put a candidate in the White House in, oh, about a century now, and had smaller inflation-adjusted spending 4 years later.

  19. But they started betraying us on day 101, and the past eight years have governed so despicably I’m looking forward to the return of New Deal Democrat rule by comparison.

    Now I’m beginning to understand the Obamatarian mindset. I guess it’s nice to be beaten with a blue rubber hose after being beaten with a red hose for a while.

    I still don’t get the enthusiasm, though.

  20. donderlolz is right, let’s give the republicans some credit for completely murdering the term “free market” in the public sphere.

    good job, you fucking assholes.

  21. High school is over, and the Republican Party is going out-of-state for college. We can pretend that the relationship will last, and who knows, miracles do happen.

    But the best thing we can do for ourselves is just get over it. They’re more interested in that new whore, evangelicals, than us anyway.

    Besides, can we really keep on pretending that the relationship ever meant anything to begin with? They were just saying “free markets” to get in our pants, they never even meant it!

  22. Reading the “Contract With America” is like coming across that old love letter from a past Valentines day. We wanted to believe it was true love, but it was just infatuation.

    We’re on our own know, and we’re better off that way. Time to be a real party, one that we know the people want!

    Now if only the LP would make themselves more accessible (Libertarian Reform Caucus?), and Ron Paul would come back over…

  23. 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

    This is a point which is sorely overlooked.

    The likelihood that our elected Heroes of Democracy would ever modify the rules in a way which would limit their power is vanishingly low.

  24. cunnivore,

    Indeed. Because the Republicans were bad, the bad Democrats are better, because they aren’t Republicans. At the very least, a reasonable person would pine for divided government, not more of the corrupt practices we see in a unified government.

  25. Off topic, but isn’t it funny that the only candidate Obama can find to be the Director of the CIA is another Clinton Chief of Staff.

    Never in memory can I recall a newly elected President being exposed as a fraud so quickly.

    Clinton should just take take the oath of office with an Obama sock puppet on his hand.

  26. I’d put slick Willie back in office over Bush or McSame anyday.

  27. Not with a Democratic Congress, I wouldn’t.

  28. Never in memory can I recall a newly elected President being exposed as a fraud so quickly.

    LOL. Except George the lesser and daddy’s staff/cabinet I suppose?

    He ain’t even held the reins yet. You have to give him at least a year – the wagon will be fully over the cliff by then.

  29. Bush’s Daddy’s people hadn’t sacrificed every ounce of their integrity attempting to destroy all of the people who threatened their beloved leader. These appointments are the heart of the Clinton machine. If Obama isn’t a puppet he’s the biggist fucking fool in the known universe.

  30. I think you guys are all missing the point here. Cavanaugh and the other Reason writers who have been writing so endlessly about the Republicans for the past several days aren’t “blaming republicans and ignoring democrats.” They’re identifying with republicans and ignoring democrats. All this crap about “returning to principle” – what’s that about? When was the last time a republican – or a democrat – gave more than an insincere wink to principle?

    The central tragedy of the “republican revolution” wasn’t the Contract, but the smashed promises of all those newly-minted R congresscritters whose devotion to small government, term limits and such lasted at most five nanoseconds after seeing the perks they’d just won. Principle? Feh!

    Look, Reason staffers. I know it’s hard. I know you’re beltway libertarians and all, and need to identify with somebody who’s at least within shouting distance of all that power. But the republicans don’t love you! They never did. It’s over. Quit – for the love of all that’s holy or at least plausible, quit! – trying to get them to love you.

    Republicans are politicians. When they talk about principle, please notice that their lips are moving. That’s how you can tell they’re lying, you know.

  31. Republican may not love you libertarians, but joe does, he loves each and every one of you. He’s trying to keep you from getting burnt again and ignore false hopes.

    There are libertarian and statist tendencies in both parties. Typically statist wins out, cause, well, they are in power after all. There is room for the libertarian tendency to grow, but no single party is going to publicly endorse it with any sincerity.

  32. omg, joel not joe, haha.

  33. Excellent Joel. Dead on.

    When will these people learn that the Rs will “find their principles” for only exactly as long as it takes them to return to power at which point the mask comes off, again.

  34. Cavanaugh says that the Contract With America only had “very small parts of which overlapped with limited-government goals.” And yet Dondero wants us to believe that the Contract With America wasn’t the start of big government, federal Jesus, invade the world Republicanism?

    The GOP has spent 20 years ridding itself of libertarians. It has gone about electing people who don’t ask about whether religion should be supported by the government, but how much. It favored people long on “man-on-dog” concerns and short on limited government concerns.

    In short, how is the GOP’s current state anything but its own fault? The Contract With America was just the first “folksy” bullshit put out by the new GOP. Eventually the bullshit would get so thick that people actually justified voting for W. Now that the super duper bullshit has subsided, the Contract With America almost seems like perfume.

  35. People with too much power will always abuse it, even if they start out with good intentions. The trick is acknowledging that fact and limiting the power that you hand to them. This is so basic and so obvious that I can’t for the life of me figure out the rah-rah attitude of so many partisans when their power is in control. We all lose when either party controls the government or when politicians stay in office for decades, without much accountability to anyone, least of all their constituents.

    I think the Contract with America was an improvement over the normal political “marketing” process, and it did result in some small improvements. However, without a complete overhaul of the way Congress operates and the reshackling of government in general, we’re never going to see much contraction or reform.

  36. “I think the Contract with America was an improvement over the normal political “marketing” process, and it did result in some small improvements.”

    I disagree. It ushered in the era of folksy bullshit culminating with Sarah Palin. The Contract With America was the written form of a wink and a you betcha!

  37. Lamar,

    I disagree with your disagreement. The failure of the Contract with America or with most reformist movements is the largely unchecked and corrupting power of office, not the ideas themselves. I expect you’ll be equally disenchanted with the Democrats when they begin the Festival of Mandatitude.

  38. The only thing I can’t sign on to is your disagreement with my disagreement. In support of the complete bullshittyness, I submit the bills included in the Contract:

    American Dream Restoration Act
    Taking Back Our Streets Act
    Personal Responsibility Act
    Common Sense Legal Reform Act This one at least says something about what it is.
    Family Reinforcement Act

    Blah blah blah. It was all a front for big jesus back then, and it led to the current crop of jesusers we have today.

    The failure of the Contract is that it was bullshit from the start. It was a gimmick, and it worked, leading to more daring gimmicks. In the end, was, say, Ric Keller anything other than a gimmick? Will Rick Santorum ever mean anything other than “man on dog” … or worse? This document was created by these sleaze balls who got enamored with their own power. Just because they weren’t brazen when they were elected and wrote the Contract doesn’t mean that they weren’t terrible, evil, disingenuous SOBs who killed the GOP. You may disagree with my conclusions, but I’ll disagree with your refusal to agree.

  39. The whole thing was cribbed from the Heritage Foundation’s “worst of” reel.

  40. Lamar,

    I reject your reality and substitute my own. I don’t think the Contract was the problem (and I, too, found many elements in the Contract unappealing); rather, I think that when the party threw out the libertarians to embrace a name-only, obviously underqualified candidate and the oddly destructive concept of “compassionate conservatism”, well, the results are conclusive. While 9/11 helped bring out the worst in the GOP and had the effect of squelching the remnants of the limited government arm of the party in a misguided thought that they must be unified in support of Bush, the damage was really done in the 2000 election.

  41. Etatrebil Orp:

    I reverse your statements and are now mine!

  42. Was going to fix the title but Obamatarian beat me to it.

  43. We all lose when either party controls the government or when politicians stay in office for decades, without much accountability to anyone, least of all their constituents.

    But there’s never been any real accountability for elected officials in the first place. Unless you believe that “voting them out next time around” equals “accountability”?

    Voting them out next time means nothing. Especially when the only candidates we get to pick from the next time around, are the same old same old. Take for example, the 2008 presidential campaign.

    without a complete overhaul of the way Congress operates and the reshackling of government in general, we’re never going to see much contraction or reform.

    Yeah. But how’s this reshackling going to happen? American Revolution 2.0? Because the voting public is never-ever going to be able to make it happen via who they vote for.

    The root problem with our system is this whole democracy thing. Democracy is better than anything else at giving people what they want, or at least what they think they want.

    But when it comes time to give The People what they really need, democracy is and always will be an abject failure. People can say “that’s the voter’s faults”, but fact is, the democratic election system just rewards the incentives that are actually out there.

    Now, if we could bring back some good old Roman customs, and lynch a few politicians every so often, we might have ourselves a reign on the beast.

    I for one am very much in favor of holding two elections each year. In the first we elect our scoundrels. In the second, we elect some number of Top Scoundrels from the previous year and hold a public lynching.

  44. Or maybe we should declare a national Super Holiday. We’ll make election day, lynching day, and income tax due day, all coincide.

  45. Hell if I know how to fix things now. “Us the people” need to want limited government again. That may happen if the government does something really bad (in the eyes of the public at large) and the right kind of backlash occurs, but I think that’s unlikely.

    We could try to amend the Constitution to further limit the government’s powers (e.g., restate and narrow the scope of certain powers, add new checks and balances like the Censor, etc.), but opening up that process, particularly through a Constitutional Convention, would present its own set of dangers.

  46. I think opening it up at this point would be very dangerous.

    And I also don’t think We The People really want limited government anymore.

    So the next option is to figure out which third world country we’re going to go conquer and set up our own deal.

    Unless somebody really does figure out how to go create a new island somewhere out in the pacific.

  47. Well, I’ve been quietly terraforming the Moon. It’ll be a libertarian utopia.

  48. And you didn’t tell me? Geez.

  49. True, I haven’t really publicized my plans within the libertarian community. However, I did publicly explain the mechanism for developing an economical method for getting from the Earth to the Moon.

  50. Let’s see, Democrats are obviously superior on civil liberties, and at the very least can manage the economy competently. But by all means further reduce your relevance by continuing to sympathize with Republicans more.

  51. The Democrats were bad on civil liberties last time they ran things and are arguably much worse on economics than the GOP, which at least once represented a slightly more market-based approach.

    In any case, if relevance means loving either major party, then I’m proudly irrelevant.

  52. No, they claimed to represent a “free market,” but in modern history that has always been a philosophical excuse to transfer wealth upward and insulate the very rich and their corporations from the risks of that market. Democrats may not check all the right ideological boxes, but insofar as they manage to spread the risk away from the poor, they actually make markets function and economies grow. Unlike, say, the catastrophe we’re currently living through.

    This “pox on both their houses” rhetoric is lazy thinking. Democrats aren’t perfect but at least they aren’t utterly evil. The current Republican establishment, peopled as it is exclusively by plutocrats and religious fanatics, has nothing to do with libertarianism except perhaps a tiny, nostalgic ideological thread that a lot of you guys just can’t let go of.

  53. It’s not lazy thinking. I recall all too well the abuses of both parties while in power. 9/11 made the GOP worse than usual, but I don’t see any evidence whatsoever that the Democrats are better. Certainly not when taking their policies as a whole.

    The GOP’s embracing of the Democrats’ socialist leanings does not make the Democrats’ socialist leanings go away. Nor does history present a compelling argument for believing that we’ll see much if anything in the way of reforms. Civil liberties have been getting trashed nonstop by both parties, and both have expanded the size of government well beyond its mandated limits.

    So, yeah, I think it’s nuts to have faith in the Democrats. Rejecting the historically proven incompetence, power seeking, corruption, stupidity, etc. of the two parties is absolutely unwarranted. A pox on both their houses is the rational, non-faith-based view.

  54. As John Dean put it:

    “Just tell your readers that you have a source who knows a lot about the Republican Party from long experience, that he knows all the key movers and shakers, and he has a bit of advice: People should not vote for any Republican because they are dangerous, dishonest, and self-serving. While I once believed that Governor George Wallace had it right, that there was not a dime’s worth of difference in the parties, that is no longer true. I have come to realize that Democrats really do care about people who most need help from government; Republicans care most about those who will only get richer because of government help. The government is truly broken, particularly in dealing with national security, and another four years and heaven forbid not eight years under the Republicans, and our grandchildren will have to build a new government, because the one we have will be unrecognizable and unworkable.”

  55. Wow Tony, your comments have completely and totally persuaded me that Republican are evil and Democrats are our only savior. Your ability to build an arguement based on facts and evidence is overwhelming. I mean how could ANYONE disagree with anything you said. I mean during the last two years when the Democrats have controlled congress with President LameDuck they have definitely improved the economy, expanded Civil Rights, gotten rid of the “culture of corruption” that those evil Repubs brought with them, and won the Iraq war. You’re right with such a stellar record behind them it’s amazing that anyone could be so stupid as favor the party of ChimpyMcHitler over the leadership-awesomeness of Reid, Pelosi, Frank, and Dodd.

    HOPE AND CHANGE 2009 – 2016

  56. thank u man a lot’s

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