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Smart v. Stupid

Why the GOP Pledge to America bombed

The Party of No puts it in writing — and no one really cares…

In 1994 the Contract with America sealed the deal. For months, Republicans had been demonizing Bill Clinton and the Democratic Congress. Newt Gingrich disparaged Clinton daily for a “socialist” agenda, philandering, and insider capitalism. Gingrich was having his own affair and would soon leave in disgrace. But in ’94, the Contract was the knockout punch for a Republican takeover of the House of Representatives.

Given electoral success in the ’94 midterms, it only made sense to try a repeat. But the Pledge to America landed like a load of elephant dung at the circus, barely capturing one news cycle before being shoveled up and binned. What went wrong? Here’s the prevailing analysis:

That’s a lot of filler in there, big fella

The 45 page document is full of white space and big color photographs of mountains and monuments. It has three title pages, a two page “pledge” that says almost nothing, a six page forward that rehashes old Republican talking points, and thirty more pages. About half the remaining pages contain photos of Republican House Members, no fewer than 44 in all. It even has a two-page back cover. Taken at a glance, it looks like one of those planned-community brochures that real estate developers create so you won’t notice they knocked down all the trees – lots of shiny, not much shade.

It’s simply The Party of No… on paper

In many ways, the Pledge is a written version of what we’ve already heard. Republicans promise to stop healthcare, stop regulation of business, stop collecting taxes, stop old people from retiring, and stop any attempt to stop favoring the rich.

The document envisions a government that does nothing for citizens, does anything for corporations, and protects the Department of Defense as the primary instrument for corporate welfare. But none of this is new. These ideas have dominated Fox News (and enjoyed substantial airing at other news outlets) for two years now.

Consider this sentence,

With common-sense exceptions for seniors, veterans, and our troops, we will roll back government spending to pre-stimulus, prebailout levels, saving us at least $100 billion in the first year alone and putting us on a path to balance the budget and pay down the debt.

While claiming to protect seniors (they vote) and soldiers (they provide cover for corporate welfare,) what they’ve really done here is pretend that one-time stimulus was actually an annual expense, then claim to save about seven percent of the annual deficit. This is simply a combination of a political trick and an accounting trick. Even if it were real, cutting the deficit seven percent annually would lead to the first balanced budget in fourteen years, 2024. Seven House terms, that’s a mighty long “path.”

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The Pledge is insubstantial

Republicans propose to “freeze government spending” and eliminate “waste and fraud.” They also promise to protect the borders and enforce sanctions on Iran. Of course, all of these ideas are both bi-partisan and as fluffy as a well made soufflé. Then, we enjoy two pages with photographs of Republican House Members….

On income tax policy, they propose to extend the tax cuts of middle class families. These are the same ones that they blocked, just last week. That’s it. On business tax policy, they propose to give business a 20 percent deduction. Since most all businesses already have deductions that drive taxable profits below 20 percent, this means they’ve proposed to eliminate business taxes altogether. Now there’s a deficit reduction strategy for you; cut all services to individuals and cut all taxes for business. And then, more pictures of Republican Members.

On government spending, cut waste, cut Congress, a federal hiring freeze. Cut what? Well, “everything” which really means nothing. The Pledge calls for not spending money allocated to stimulus. That might sound good if you’re not a fan of Keynesian economics, but it isn’t a cut in the budget. It’s largely a reduction of federal support for state and local government. After that, you guessed it, more pictures of House Republicans.

On health care, “Repeal and replace.”

We offer a plan to repeal and replace the government takeover of health care with common sense solutions focused on lowering costs and protecting American jobs.

What’s the plan? Shield doctors from lawsuits (regardless of whether they’ve hurt someone,) eliminate state regulation of health insurance plans (by requiring states to accept plans from other states) and some vague pronouncement about health savings accounts. They also say they will end exclusions for pre-existing conditions (already addressed in the new health law) and end taxpayer funding of abortion (already done since 1977.) That’s health reform, Republican style. Then what? Yet more pictures of House Republicans including a pensive shot of John Boehner.

It goes on and on, but in the end it goes nowhere. And just before the two back covers? More pictures of House Republicans, of course.

In the end, context matters

The Pledge is being promoted during wartime and near-depression, when the importance of everything is measured against a soldier’s life and a father’s unemployment. This sort of fluff has less gravitas in a time of great challenges. The Pledge may have been a mistake of bad timing, bad analysis, or perhaps simple hubris. It motivated no Republican and disappointed most every conservative commentator. Its arrival, timed to step on a health care implementation date, has coincided with a Democratic resurgence in the polls.

In the years that followed 1994’s Contract with America, none of its goals were accomplished. It amounted to nothing. The Pledge to America simply starts out that way. Now that’s a new style of government efficiency. Go Republicans!

Jimmy Zuma splits his time between Washington, D.C. and Tucson. He writes the online opinion journal, Smart v. Stupid. He spent 5 years in Tucson in the early ‘80s, when life was a little slower, swamp coolers were a little more plentiful, Tucson’s legendary music scene was in full bloom, and the prevailing work ethic was “don’t - unless you have to.”

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1 comment on this story

Oct 3, 2010, 7:59 am
-0 +1

Beautifully described, the parallels of the 1994 and 2010 Republican promises, and the departures of the current day.

I’d add another reason why the “Pledge” fell flat.  Most voters these days are attending to little in their media/political/social experiences except fear and rage.  They’re NOT listening or reading with critical analysis or insight: it is virtually all reflexive, reactive.  The Pledge changed virtually no ones’ minds about anything in terms of voter options. 

The same is happening here in Georgia, where evidence appears almost daily of Nathan Deal’s ethical offenses, lack of integrity, personal fiscal recklessness and overt dishonesty.  But the polls show that so-called “Christian conservatives” still intend to vote for him for governor.  They are unwilling to even consider voting for his Democratic opponent, or a 3rd party candidate, or to leave the governor’s ballot item blank, and thus are willing to compromise their own values.  They are as thoughtless as they are spineless.

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