It seems beyond doubt that the basic partisan dynamic in the country right now is that voters are "finished with" the radical right (to borrow the memorable phrase from the most recent Democracy Corps strategy memo) but that the Republican collapse isn't matched, yet, by
an affirmative move toward the Democratic Party. Democrats aren't yet offering anything that captures the imagination of voters.
It's in that context that I've been trying to figure out what the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is doing this week by pitching a campaign around the idea that the Republicans "breached" the 1994 "Contract With America."
For years, Democrats have been in envious awe of the Contract, the clarity of its message, and its ability to cut through generic mistrust of politicians to establish a positive connection with voters. When Dems have attempted to produce our own version of the Contract -- a short list of clear, meaningful principles -- it has too often descended into the 61-point interest group agenda of last year's "New
Partnership for America's Future." So after almost a dozen years of trying to replicate the Contract, Democrats seem to have decided to embrace it.
This seems to me monumentally stupid for a half dozen reasons:
* Eleven years is a long time. Yes, to Washington Dems the Contract with America is still a living, breathing monster. Many of us lost our jobs because of it. (I didn't, but I would have been in line for a very cool job if Democrats had retained the Senate.) But does the Contract have any meaning for ordinary people after 11 years, three presidential elections, an impeachment, Sept. 11, a war, etc.? I'm open to hearing about poll numbers that indicate otherwise, but I suspect the answer is no.
* This seems almost too banal to point out, but if you're going to excoriate someone for breaking a contract, it would help if you support the contract in the first place. The Contract was a weird mix of procedural reforms that should never have been controversial (ban proxy voting in House committees, require commitee meetings to be public) and very substantive changes (supermajority requirement for tax increases, balanced budget, no U.S. troops under U.N. Command, etc.) Many of the substantive changes have passed into law long ago (welfare reform, child tax credit, capital gains tax cut). Is the DCCC saying that Democrats endorse the remaining provisions of the Contract?
(I realize this second point contradicts the first a little bit -- if no one remembers the Contract, you can just redefine as a promise to not be corrupt. But that's a little too clever.)
* It's obvious that the fad of George Lakoff and "framing" has finally come to an end in official Democratic circles. I'm a Lakoff critic, but it's too bad that the occasional good insights from that fad seem to have been forgotten in the predictable backlash. One is the idea that certain language will tend to "activate" the other side's frame. In this case, attacking the Republicans for breach of the "Contract with America" does little more than activate the positive frame of the Contract and its attitude of just-do-it, automatic accountability, and corrupt Democrats!
* The God-that-failed narrative, which holds that after ten years, the hopeful honesty of the Republican revolution somehow became corrupted by immersion in the swamp of Washington, has already been claimed by the right. Almost a year ago, Andrew Ferguson in the Weekly Standard was explaining away the Abramoff scandals: After ten years, he said, it was Washington that changed the Republicans rather than the other way around, and "stripped of its peculiar grossness, Abramoff's really is just another story of business as usual in the world of Washington lobbying." (I love that phrase, since "its peculiar grossness" -- gangland slayings, for example -- is kind of the whole thing.)
And of course, this is all spin. The Republicans didn't slowly become corrupted by Washington, they brought in a level of corruption not seen since the Gilded Age. Newt Gingrich was a serial willful violator of ethics and campaign finance rules, DeLay launched the "K Street Project" in 1995. After the far-right Republicans consolidated their total control in 2001 and then when they took back the Senate in 2002, the numbers got bigger and the corruption more professionalized, but it was theirs from the start.
So are Democrats endorsing the idea that the Contract was a bright hope that faded? Are they the ones to restore the revolutionary hope? Just what are they saying?
* The whole breach-of-contract argument is internal and process-oriented. It's an insiders' argument to insiders. What does it have to do with war, economic security, global challenges, hurricanes and floods, etc. Yes, reform is a key theme and Democrats must embrace it, but not in a bloodless good-government way. It's got to be integrally connected to the things people care about in life, and in the non-political aspects of their life.
If Democrats expect to capitalize on the emerging scandals, indictments, chaos, and the President's unpopularity to nationalize a congressional election for the first time since 1994, they have to find one or two clear points, substantive points, that are our own and that would matter: universal health care, preparedness for future crises, economic security, bring the war in Iraq to an end -- something serious that people can grab onto. Talking about someone else's 11-year-old Contract is no substitute.