Reactions to The Contract With America, New Gingrichs pledge and organizing principle for the Revolution of 1994, were not all positive. Indeed, the usual gag was to refer to it as The Contract on America, as if GOP candidates were hit-men, as if balanced budgets and term limits would kill the country.
How effective was the contract? It helped elect the first GOP House majority in over 40 years. House Republicans did hold votes on each of ten measures, as promised, but the two most important features fizzled: the balanced budget amendment and term limits.
The House passed a balanced budget amendment, only to see it go down to defeat in the Senate. The term limits idea, so popular amongst voters and passed as citizen initiatives in more than a score of states, was defeated, with House leadership refusing to actively support it. After state initiatives were challenged and defeated in court, the House ÷revolutionariesø barely made a nudge in the direction of a constitutional amendment.
Still, the Contract With America was not simply a stunt. It organized politicians and it set up a standard for voter judgment. That standard, one could argue, lingered. And, against it, the class of 94 Republicans eventually discredited themselves — they had cave in to the traditional Washington vices of spendthrift legislation and heedlessness . . . of constitutional limitations, of their promises, of the Contract itself.
And now, the Contracts story has extended to a new and more interesting chapter.
Well, there is a Contract out there. It is evolving, sure. It has yet to take a definite form. But if any corporeal frame is ready to take it on, it is the Tea Party.
And this time, it might have teeth.
Call it the American Contract on Republicans, without the smug laughter at the wordplay.
The Tea Party movement is growing. And it is organized not in a top-down way, but — as Jonathan Rauch explained in a recent article on Tea Party leadership — but laterally, in the starfish manner. The Republican Party is Microsoft; the Tea Party is Linux.
And though the Democratic Party is the current target, it is against the Republicans that the Tea Party most urgently distinguishes itself. The feel I get is not simply that the Tea Party is the GOPs MoveOn.org. (One could argue that it is, after all. Both groups are activist and grassroots and organizationally non-traditional, and both have billionaire patrons: MoveOn has George Soros, the Tea Party has the Koch brothers. Enough said?) Whereas MoveOn folk were immediately successful in getting their kind of Democrats into power, the Tea Partiers have, so far, only removed establishment-types of Republicans from the running.
And this is important. The Tea Party began as a destroying angel.
Its first big serious move (after all the demonstrations, of course) was to bring down a series of Republican Insiders; voters gave established Republicans from Utah to Alaska to Delaware the pink slip, stained with tea.
Well see how well the new Tea Party-approved candidates fare in November. But win or lose, merely by setting a standard, the movement has performed a public service by demanding specific representation.
If Tea Party-backed candidates win, who can argue with the strategy? But even if Tea Party candidates dont prevail in November, the movements creative destruction will have at least realigned the Republican Party in a way more pleasing to the majority of Republicans.
The GOP is badly in need of something more than tough love. So is the Democratic Party. One election wont do the job. We need tons of follow-up. In fact, there is so much reform needed, and so much resistance to popular government among the political elite, that we need a highly-caffeinated watchdog.