On Sept. 27, 1994, 367 Republican House members and candidates stood on the steps of the Capitol and endorsed what they called the Contract With America. On Sept. 23 last week, 12 Republican House members stood in a hardware store in Sterling, Va., and issued a Pledge to America.
The interesting thing is that this year's Pledge to America concentrates more on substantive issues of governance than the Contract With America did 16 years ago.
Yes, the Pledge does include some procedural reforms (any House member can get a vote on an amendment cutting spending), as did the Contract (cutting the number of committees and committee staff).
But the Pledge to America also addresses two central economic issues and makes commitments that will embarrass House Republicans if they gain a majority but fail to deliver.
One is to roll back non-defense discretionary spending to 2008 levels. The other is to repeal -- not revise or amend or embroider, but repeal -- the health care bill signed by Barack Obama exactly six months before the shirt-sleeved House Republicans made their pledge.
The rollback to 2008 strikes me as good policy and politics -- or, at least, good conservative policy and good Republican politics.
Good conservative policy because the Obama administration and Democratic congressional leaders vastly increased domestic spending in the 2009 stimulus package and the 2010 budget. With a Democratic president and Democratic supermajorities for the first time in more than 30 years, experienced and dedicated Democrats took out their wish lists and turned them into law.
In particular, they increased the budget baselines for many domestic programs. Getting those baselines back down will make a significant difference not just this year but for years to come.
But wouldn't it hurt Republicans, if they have a House majority, to get into a budget fight as it hurt Newt Gingrich's new majority back in 1995? Not necessarily. The benefits from those spending increases are pretty invisible to the ordinary voters (though visible to public employee union leaders who give millions to Democrats). How many ads are Democratic candidates running bragging about these spending increases?
And despite the widespread consensus that Gingrich's Republicans lost the 1995-96 budget fight with Bill Clinton, they went on to win more popular votes and more House seats than Democrats in the next five House elections.
Moreover, the macroeconomy is in a very different place than it was during the Gingrich era. Then, we were well launched into an economic recovery, one aided by Republicans' partial victories on budget and tax issues. Money didn't seem scarce, and shutting down the government seemed extreme.
Today, we are in, if not an official recession, at least an agonizingly slow recovery. And if Democrats complain that it's unfair for government and public employees to be limited to what they got in 2008, Republicans can reply that an awful lot of their constituents would be very happy to go back to the income levels and the housing equity and the 401(k) balances they had in 2008.
Everyone has been suffering. Why should government be exempt? Wouldn't it function better if it went on a diet?
As for Obamacare, a few months ago Republican leaders were reluctant to call for repeal. They may have feared that Nancy Pelosi and Bill Clinton were right when they predicted the legislation would become more popular when passed. Or they may have been wary of sounding extreme.
But now they're squarely for repeal. It turns out to be a stand most Republican primary voters demand and most general election voters support.
Gingrich's Contract Republicans did not have such a target 16 years ago. Hillycare had already fizzled weeks before they assembled on the Capitol steps. Today, the demand for major reversals in public policy is much greater than it was back then.
One other thing is different. In 1994, Gingrich's Republicans were not sure they would win a majority; conventional wisdom around Washington was they would not.
Today, chances for a Republican House majority seem excellent, if not absolutely certain. But no one knows how big a majority.
Can Republicans really repeal Obamacare and roll back spending to 2008 levels? Probably not. But by taking clear stands, they raise their chances of getting part way there by 2012. And maybe farther later.