Frank Luntz, the strategist behind Newt Gingrich's Contract With America, ponders a new version for 2010. Samuel P. Jacobs spoke to six alums of that effort about whether it can be resurrected.
The GOP is sounding awfully optimistic for a party in exile. Despite their thumping at the polls this time last year, Republicans are increasingly sanguine about their chances in the 2010 midterm elections, as President Obama’s drop in popularity and the contentious politics of health care and Afghanistan have taken a toll on the public’s confidence in the Democrats.
The last time we heard such cheer among conservatives it was 1994, and the Republican leadership was standing on the steps of the Capitol presenting its Contract With America, a plain-faced piece of policy aimed at debt reduction, lower taxes, and term limits, which helped transform a back-bench conservative insurgency into a national movement.
Looking for a little of that old-time magic, conservative pollster Frank Luntz, the original strategist for the Contract, is mulling over a new document for 2010.
The Contract “undeniably allowed the Republican Party to go to the voters in the fall of ’94 and say, ‘we are not simply the party of no. We are not nihilists. We have ideas... That set the storyline,” said political historian Richard Norton Smith, who has led the presidential libraries of five Republican presidents.
Luntz already has a possible name—the Declaration of Re-Independence. He says he got the idea in a conversation with conservative commentator Laura Ingraham and has a concrete set of principles at the ready.
“It would have planks for a balanced budget, an amendment to have a supermajority for tax increases, and it would oppose a mandate for health care,” said Luntz recently, by phone from Taipei, where he said he was working with the National Basketball Association.
A Daily Beast survey of six of the original architects and beneficiaries of the strategy—including head contractor Newt Gingrich—indicated it’s a course of action worthy of serious consideration. Gingrich, who declined to be interviewed for this article, was asked by The Daily Beast about the need for a new Contract after a speech at Harvard University last Thursday. “I’d be in favor of considering it in the fall of 2010,” Gingrich said. “Remember we didn't launch the Contract until late September. We literally don't know today what the issues will be next September or October.”
When asked whether he was consulting with the GOP’s leadership, Luntz said he has left partisan politics. But he added, “These guys listen if I give them something they’re interested in.” Indeed they do; few have done more to define Republican rhetoric over the last 20 years than Luntz has. Case in point: He’s the man responsible for renaming the estate tax the “death tax.” When leaked, his advice for how the Republicans should handle the health-care battle, caused waves.
But Luntz isn’t the only one open to a reprise of the Republicans’ successful 1994 strategy, which paved the way for the GOP to take the House for the first time in 40 years, and tie President Clinton in knots.
“A similar strategy is certainly appropriate,” said Robert Walker, a longtime conservative House member from Pennsylvania who retired in 1997 and now works for a D.C. lobbying firm that bears his name.
Former Rep. Steve Largent, Republican of Oklahoma, who was part of the group of conservatives ushered in by the Contract, said he favored the idea of a new one.
“I think it would be really good,” said Largent, who now heads a wireless-industry trade group.
A spokesman for former House Majority Leader Dick Armey, now the head of the Tea Party group Freedom Works, said he also saw the wisdom of a new Contract.
“If you create the set of principles to unify around, and you get the folks to sign up, and you nationalize this election, yes, that could help you pick up 20, 30, 45 seats that you need,” the spokesman said.
Not everyone is sold on the idea, however. Rep. George Nethercutt, Republican of Washington, cautioned that a return to the successful tactics of the past could backfire this time around.
“Saying this is Contract With America 2? I think that there would be too many critics who said you had your chance,” said Nethercutt, now a political consultant. He knows well how to overturn Democratic rule. In 1994, he defeated Democrat Tom Foley, becoming the first man to defeat a sitting House Speaker since before the Civil War.
And former Iowa Republican Rep. Jim Nussle stopped short of advocating a new Contract, but said there is value in thinking through the kinds of issues that the GOP could coalesce around. “There’s still a lot of time to go through that process,” said Nussle, who runs his own political consulting firm today—adding that House Minority Leader John Boehner, Republican of Ohio, and others around him have already begun that process.
But there’s still excitement at the possibility of returning to a winning strategy. What could a new Contract look like?
Most of the former congressmen were mum when it came to details, speaking in vague generalities. Walker said he favored emphasizing the opportunity to succeed. Nussle said a focus on individual freedom, fiscal responsibility, and a strong country had to be the “building blocks.” Largent said he would include an emphasis on limiting the growth of government. Nethercutt said a provision on debt reduction would be appropriate, and Armey’s camp is paying attention to deficit issues—balancing the budget was a key component of the original Contract. When asked about having a new Contract on Thursday, Gingrich mentioned modernization.
The strategy should become increasingly sharp in the coming months, but the party’s enthusiasm is already peaking.
“This has the making of a 1994 all over again,” Nethercutt said.
Political historian Richard Norton Smith, who has led the presidential libraries of five Republican presidents, said the Contract was an essential piece of that year’s politics.
It “undeniably allowed the Republican Party to go to the voters in the fall of '94 and say, ‘We are not simply the party of no. We are not nihilists. We have ideas. We are, above all, a party of reform, not simply tapping into dissatisfaction with the status quo. That set the storyline,” Smith said.
Of course, not even a new Contract With America may be enough to help Republicans over the hump in 2010. Some Republicans point out that despite the drop from the Olympian heights in his approval ratings earlier this year, President Obama is likely to be more popular on Election Day 2010 than President Clinton was at the comparable juncture. The GOP’s favorability ratings today are far worse than they were 15 years ago. The Dems have relatively few incumbents retiring next year—meaning they’ll have fewer open seats to defend. And while the Contract’s success took them by surprise in 1994, the Democrats have likely learned their lesson—and will be on high alert this time around.
With 12 months to go until the election, it may be too soon tell whether the Republicans see a return to past tactics as wise politics.
“It depends on the leadership,” Luntz said, “and whether they realize that they have to stand for something.”
In Gringrich, the Republican Party of 1994 had a leader known for his fondness of big ideas, bold strategic strokes, and a sense of history. (One National Review writer noted after a recent visit by Gingrich that he “gabs about history with the acuity of a college professor” and “enjoys getting tangled in history’s battles of ideas, be they from 1790 or 2009.”). It’s not clear that the same could be said about today’s congressional Republican leaders. (House Minority Leader John Boehner’s office could not be reached Monday.)
“It’s hard for me to see John Boehner putting out a Contract With America,” said Smith, the historian. “Newt, whatever else you say about him, had and retains a credibility as a guy who cares about ideas….I’m not sure John Boehner is that kind of leader.”
Samuel P. Jacobs is a staff reporter at The Daily Beast. He has also written for The Boston Globe, The New York Observer, and The New Republic Online.