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Breach of Contract?

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.

Posted by Mark Schmitt on September 29, 2005 | Permalink


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Nice post. This "Breach of Contract" faux-petition, however, should belie the image people have of the DCCC -- and groups like it -- of being too predictable. Far from it. Indeed, it simply wouldn't have occurred to any of us outside Washington that criticizing the other party for not living up to an 11-year-old publicity gimmick whose principles the Democrats essentially opposed, anyway, would in any sense be a useful way of gaining traction with the voting public. So this at least counts as an unusual idea. Of course, that just means it happens to be an unusually bad idea. Still, it's one that none of us living here in the year 2005 would have concocted.

Say, would any D.C. jounalists with a little extra time be interested in finding out exactly who at the DCCC is responsible for this lame gambit? We see bad, irrelevant, unfocused, poorly-written, and pointless releases from Democratic groups in Washington all the time, but it might be a pleasant change to have some names get named, and to have the same old imept Democrats held accountable -- in a minor way, every once in a while -- for their ineptitude.

Posted by: Peter | Sep 29, 2005 1:57:42 PM

Very intelligent essay.

It needs to be said that much of the success of the 'breakthrough' Contract With America was the Democratic corruption that called for such a Contract.

The unwashed multitudes have not lost their image of the Democrats as institutional crooks, just like the current crop of Republican wise guys.

To the public, this is not a black and white situation.

Posted by: Antifa | Sep 29, 2005 4:23:43 PM


The frame (if you will) that can link the corruption of the current Republicans and a positive agenda for the future is "What do you expect when you elect people who believe that the government is worthless? Of course, those who believe this will use the levers of power to benefit themselves and you will get worthless government. We do beleive in government. We believe that it has a positive effect. So vote for us for more effective government!" Then you launch into the positive things you want to do...education, healthcare and what have you.

OK, it's cheesy the way I wrote it, and I'm sure there are better writers out there in the Dem party who could put it more eloquently, but it is a powerful counterframe to the Rep frame of government being the problem. In fact, this notion of government as the problem is one of the main pillars that sustains the conservative movement and the party that benefits from it. The current rash of scandals at the top of the Republican party gives us the perfect opportunity to demolish this support and bring the whole party crashing down around their ears.

They obviously don't beleive in good government. We do and here's why.

Posted by: phanatic1 | Sep 29, 2005 5:34:12 PM

Phanatic1 is right. What he is saying about the Democrats is also akin to Lakoff's (moronically put) talk of the "nurturing party"---gag me!
The fundamental truth is that the Republicans do NOT believe the government can provide good services, so they don't even fucking try.
This is also why Republican scandals center around theft of government money: Since they believe all tax money is wasted anyway, they don't mind pocketing some for themselves.

The Democrats need to be the "good government" party.. or the "Responsible, good government" party.

Posted by: marky | Sep 29, 2005 5:53:36 PM

The trouble with Dems is that they only talk to themselves and even then only to a narrow range of other Dems who think as they do - and there is a great variety of Dems of who don't think alike. SO, we remain fragmented and ineffective.

As long as this stupidity goes on we deserve every setback we experience.

Posted by: SOB | Sep 30, 2005 12:32:31 AM

The Democratic Party lacks leadership but the grassroots hasn't yet found a way to make it any easier for this leadership to manifest itself.

The apathy in the American public towards politics and acting in the public sphere is an area worth trying to understand better.

I'll keep working at the grassroots level to help people realize that politics is not a hobby for just a few. It's a citizen's duty as an American. If you're a Christian, it's your responsibility to be in the world with a bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other - being in the world for peace and social justice.

Good post.

Posted by: Patrick Briggs | Sep 30, 2005 9:51:53 AM

In Tennessee, we have commmisioned an independent committee for governmental ethics. They released their first report yesterday, September 29th. It is available on the state website, I believe. Not that the Federal government needs anymore bureaucracy, but could this actually be something that would get the media, pundits, and politicians talking? The progressive movement has helped slow government corruption, however, there is more work that needs to done. Could this be an avenue that will further government reform?

Posted by: Brian | Sep 30, 2005 11:24:12 AM

Wonk! Wonk! Wonk!

It's a preamble, for god sakes.

The CwA was a straightforward invitation to the Ross Perot Democrats to come on over. And they did.

Reminding those who despise, as Perot pictured them, tassel-loafer-wearing-lobbyists in which party their nemises can now be found is good politics.

Posted by: Ellen1910 | Sep 30, 2005 1:11:42 PM

Not getting your legislation passed? Do it my way for once. Read my plan here.



Where Republicans tread, innocent people end up dead.

Another Pledge of Allegiance

I pledge no allegiance
To the court appointed unelected regents
( G W Bush and Dick Cheney )
Of the United States of America
For which they use the flag
To make a political grandstand.
I make my pledge
To the United States
And its constitution instead.

Posted by: buckfush | Oct 1, 2005 3:24:38 AM

The DCCC is a joke. I got a phone solicitation from them recently and I politely told them I was out of work and could not afford a donation and rather than say "Thank you" I got a series of haggling requests - "DCCC: Can you afford $50, ME: No, I told you I'm out of work. DCCC: How about $40, ME: No, I told you I'm out of work. DCCC: So can you afford $25?". It's a minor annoyance and I'm sure the phone solicitor isn't setting policy but if a committed Democrat on the DCCC mailing list who volunteered at the county Dem HQ can be made to feel like they are out of touch in 2 minutes imagine the effect they have on Independents.

The DCCC is the worst of the Democratic campaign organizations IMHO. My GOP Congressman ran unopposed in FL-24 in '04. It's not like Florida was important or anything. There was Sen. Bob Graham's open seat and a Presidential election that could of used a boost with a semicompetive race. Instead....a sweep. Rahm Emmanuel is the Don Adams of politics. "We're running great candidates in every district. Would you believe good candidates in most districts? How about a half dozen retreads from '04? Would you believe Chastity Bono is running against her mom?"

Posted by: joejoejoe | Oct 1, 2005 3:26:04 AM

newt gingrich campaigned for leadership in his party and the contract was one of his tactics

is there anyone capable of doing the "newt" thing in the democratic party

does the structure of the party organization even allow for such a thing to happen?

Posted by: james | Oct 3, 2005 11:19:13 AM

I may be mistaken, but I distinctly recall reading a revisionist take which pointed out that the vast majority of GOP voters in 94 had never heard of the CwA. Ellen1910 may have a good point that the CwA was aimed at a subset of voters, and maybe it had more resonance with Perot Democrats than with the broader electorate, but I think it's worth maintaining a healthy skepticism about the CwA as a political tool.

Posted by: The Navigator | Oct 3, 2005 12:48:33 PM

Right, I don't think we necessarily disagree here, but since the CwA was almost an afterthought that few voters heard of in 1994 and even the media didn't start mentioning until October 1994, well, that's all the more reason to ignore it now, too. You know how some losers still try to think of a good comeback to a wisecrack a day too late? The DCCC is like that, but 11 YEARS too late.

Posted by: Peter | Oct 3, 2005 5:30:46 PM