The 104th Congress was anything but "extremist." Its leaders proposed to balance the budget — but only after seven years. They called for family tax relief — but in amounts well below the Clinton tax hikes of 1993. They advocated cost-benefit tests for new regulations — demanding, in effect, that regulations do more good than harm. They sought to restore some, though not all, of the protections guaranteed to property owners by the 5th Amendment. If anything, these proposals did not go far enough. Yet so often was the accusation of extremism repeated that many Republicans half believe it — including some who once waxed enthusiastic about the "Revolution." They now regard the Contract with America as something to run from, not on. Yet the Contract remains the GOP majority’s finest achievement.
Self-government is impossible if politics is just a game of fool the voter. Voters have a real choice over the direction of public policy only if parties offer clear alternatives and have the internal discipline to follow through on their promises. Absent such clarity and discipline, politicians will do what comes naturally — collude and combine to advance their "class interest" in expanding the federal estate. Bill Clinton is the exemplar of this approach: Promise them anything, but give them bigger government. The Contract with America was a bold attempt to replace the politics of collusion and obfuscation with a politics of candor and accountability.
For a while, there was speculation that the Contract might set a trend. Any party that did not similarly commit itself in writing to a specific legislative agenda would seem shoddy by comparison, exposed as a collection of hucksters and charlatans.
Fearing this might happen, big-government liberals vilified the Contract "on" America (as they called it), warning that its enactment would poison the air and water, throw widows out on the street, and take bread from the mouths of babes. Yet few Americans trust in the assurances of used-car salesmen, and they purchase warranties when they can afford to do so. The Contract with America gave the GOP a shot at becoming a party of integrity. It said to the world: "Here’s what we stand for, here’s what we’ll do if we become the majority; if we fail to deliver on our promises, boot us out!" Rather than toss this asset aside, the GOP would be well advised to revive it.
Bob Dole’s economic growth package calls for a 15 percent across-the-board income tax cut, a 50 percent capital gains tax cut, and a regulatory reduction commission. These ideas can help differentiate the two parties and give voters a reason to retain GOP majorities in Congress — but only if the proposals are seen to be something other than manipulative campaign oratory. Yet Bob Dole says he hasn’t read the Republican platform and doesn’t consider himself bound by it.
If Republicans are perceived to be as unprincipled as Democrats, voters will prefer Democrats, who at least know how to bring home the bacon and emote convincingly on television. Politicians love the arts of evasion, but a party with the guts to make written promises and the character to keep them will in the end earn the people’s respect and trust. Whether the GOP has the wits to make a Contract with America its standard practice and trademark remains to be seen.
–Marlo Lewis Jr.