Pledge Mostly Ignored By Republicans, So Far

[ Posted Tuesday, October 5th, 2010 – 18:04 UTC ]

The House Republicans' "Pledge To America" document, released last week with much ballyhoo, appears to not be quite the rallying cry they had hoped for. It seems that very few Republican candidates for office are embracing the Pledge as a ready-made campaign platform, or as some sort of blunt instrument to wield against Democrats. But none of this may matter, depending on how the media eventually decides to tell this story. Because the myth is always stronger than the reality, and the media simply loves simplistic storylines. Meaning the Pledge may indeed eventually be seen as the second coming of the "Contract With America." Which is, ultimately, even more ironic.

This is due to the fact that it is still highly debatable how much influence Newt Gingrich's Contract With America actually had on the 1994 midterm election. Conventional wisdom has largely settled on the storyline that the Contract was the main reason Republicans did so well in '94, but the evidence actually points to it being a very minor influence, at best. Most American voters in 1994, it turns out, had never heard of the Contract when they voted. 1994 was a Republican "wave" election, but it likely would have been just as big (or almost as big) a wave even if Newt had never come up with his gimmick. But it's easier and more comfortable for most political reporters to stick with the agreed-upon myth: the Contract was what swept Newt's crowd into Washington.

Whether the Pledge will have a similar simplistic storyline woven for it by the media remains to be seen, for a couple of reasons. But I'm getting ahead of myself. What caught my eye was an article in the Washington Post today, which begins:

A week after House Republican leaders gathered at a lumber yard in Sterling to release their "Pledge to America," one of the party's prized recruits stopped at another business about 150 miles away to give his campaign pitch on taxes, regulation and the role of government.

Virginia state Sen. Robert Hurt hit on many of the themes of the pledge, but he didn't mention it by name or quote a single line from the 48-page document. He hadn't even looked at it.

"I have not sat down and read it," said Hurt, adding that he had glimpsed "summaries of it."

For all the fanfare and publicity that accompanied the release of the pledge, relatively few Republican candidates across the country appear to be adopting it as a guiding vision, much less incorporating it into their campaigns.

That stands in stark contrast to the document the pledge is most often compared to, the 1994 "Contract With America," which was announced by Republicans just before they captured control of Congress. In September of that year, more than 300 GOP candidates and lawmakers joined together on the steps of the Capitol to endorse the contract and its tenets. Republicans then made it the centerpiece of their national campaign, and candidates incorporated it into their messages.

The rest of the article is more nuanced, pointing out that Republicans are largely campaigning on similar issues, that they believe they've successfully countered the "Party of 'No'" label, and that some Republicans are actually campaigning on the Pledge. But it also points out the fact that the Pledge is a squishier document than the Contract was in key ways. The Contract, after all, was two pages long and mostly consisted of a list of ten bullet-point items with a few more thrown in around the edges. In other words, it was concise and concrete in what it promised to voters. Newt even pledged that, should his stalwarts take the House, that they would vote on each and every item in the Contract within their first 100 days in power. You may not agree with the items on the list, but you've got to at least admire that sort of put-our-votes-where-our-mouths-are commitment from politicians.

The Pledge has none of that sort of specificity. It is, to be frank, pretty mushy about what exactly Republicans would do on vast issues which confront America. It is pretty concrete on what Republicans would repeal that has been accomplished in the past two years, but when it comes down to the questions of how to deal with the budget (for instance), the Pledge is mostly silent, other than high-flown rhetoric. This is part of why the Pledge is 21 pages long (or, if you count photos, 48 pages long). Republicans have been saying about it that it was never meant to be a "campaign document" but rather a "governing philosophy" or some such. Which is just laughable, when you consider the timing of its release. We're supposed to believe that Republicans decided to put out the Pledge and then were shocked -- shocked! -- to find out there's an election going on? Please.

The Pledge attempted to bridge the divide between the hard-core Republican base and the independent voters the party leaders would really prefer not to scare right now. As a result, its squishiness pleased nobody. Meaning Republican candidates themselves don't even identify with it, and are largely ignoring it. Which makes it all but certain that most voters (even most Republican voters) are never going to hear about it before they cast their vote.

Which is probably just fine with the establishment Republicans right now. The Pledge, after all (according to the folks who wrote it), isn't supposed to be a bullet list of things the House is going to leap into doing immediately should Republicans take control. Which means there isn't going to be a whole lot of pressure to make good on the Pledge at all. There is no Newt-like (Newt-ish?) voice out there promising full adoption in 100 days or anything even close to it this time around. And if the candidates aren't campaigning on it and the voters have never heard of it, it can quietly fade into obscurity after the actual election.

Is this a better gimmick than even Newt's Contract, then? Newt, after all, had to actually scramble to make good on his promise of voting on everything within 100 days. Most of these bills died in the Senate, but that was out of Newt's control, to be fair. Nine-tenths of the Contract never happened, remember. But Newt was forced to make good on his promises. With the Pledge, there are no such hard and fast promises to keep, at least not yet. Meaning there will be no yardstick to measure any success of the issues in the Pledge. Which, as I said, makes it possibly even a better gimmick than the Contract, because it does away with the whole "making good on our word" thing.

The only big question in how the whole story will eventually be told at Washington cocktail parties is how the media treats the results of the election, and what those results actually are. If Democrats hold the House, then the entire Pledge will be written off as a failure, both because it didn't achieve the purpose of getting lots of Republican House members elected, and because if the GOP is in the minority in the House, they won't be driving the bus and it'll be impossible for them to move any such agenda (even if they wanted to). On the other hand, if Republicans win the House, the media could latch onto the storyline "Pledge wins House for GOP," in the same way they did with the Contract. This may not happen, though. The biggest reason why not is that the media already has their simplified storyline for this election: "Tea Party triumph!" The Tea Party has sucked so much oxygen out of the Republican Party this election cycle that the media storyline -- win or lose -- is likely going to revolve around them, and not some Pledge gimmick. Also, because even if Republicans do control things in January, there is so much wiggle room in the language of the Pledge that anything Republicans decide to immediately do (my guess would be repealing "Obamacare," personally) was already a Republican objective and isn't tied all that strongly to any Pledge document.

But you never know. I find myself wondering if, in fifteen years' time, the conventional wisdom about the 2010 midterm election will be "the Pledge To America is what won it for the Republicans." Whether remotely true, or not. I kind of doubt it, as I said, but I can also see myself saying fifteen years down the road "the Pledge had nothing to do with it!" in the same way people now point out the relatively small impact the Contract With America had in '94 -- against the grain of the myth, and against the grain of accepted inside-the-Beltway conventional wisdom.


-- Chris Weigant

Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant


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