How hard is it to pull together a theme like the Contract with America? How many people even remember what that contract contained? A survey of voters shortly after the Gingrich Revolution of 1994 showed that a majority--including those who voted for the Republicans who took over Congress that year--had no idea what they were agreeing to, contractually speaking.
Yet the Democrats are agonizing over the lack of national "theme" for their 2006 Congressional campaigns. Monday’s New York Times has a front-page story headlined "For Democrats, Many Voices, but No Theme Song."
Sure, Bush's approval ratings are at an all-time low. Between civil war in Iraq, the tapes showing Bush did, indeed, hear the news in advance that the New Orleans levees might be breached, Dick-Cheney-shot-a-guy-in-the-face-gate, and all the other signs of the cronyism, incompetence, and half-cocked aggression of this administration, you'd think the Dems could pull something together.
How about returning government to the people? How about a giant check representing the perks that guys like Tom DeLay and Duke Cunningham got in exchange for corrupt political deals? How about tearing up a big no-bid contract with corporations and promising to use the money that has gone to Halliburton, instead, for rebuilding our own infrastructure at competitive rates?
Maybe some sort of clever idea will emerge at the Progressive Caucus news conference this week, where the group plans to announce, along with military and business leaders, a "Common Sense Budget Act" that will divert wasteful military spending to more useful ends.
The truth is, contrary to received wisdom, the Democrats are not lacking ideas. There is no shortage--good and bad--on both sides of the aisle. What the Democrats lack is a decent political gimmick. (After all, the kinds of ideas politicos get all excited about are often lousy notions like cutting off welfare to see if poverty is caused by public aid, or, more recently, going to war in Iraq to see if it causes democracy to roll across the Middle East.)
Maybe what the Democrats need to do is hold a contest to see what kinds of gimmicks people can come up with. Or maybe they should just lift the Contract with America gimmick and call it something like a New Contract, a New Deal, even. Anti-corruption was a major theme of the Contract with America. Term limits and a massive audit to root out waste, fraud, and abuse in government were among the Contract's promises (in fact, the Gingrich era corresponded with the rise of Jack Abramoff, the decline of ethics investigations, and the massive increase of lobbyist money directed to the Republican Party.)
Within the first 100 days of the 104th Congress, signers of Gingrich's Contract promised to introduce:
1. The Fiscal Responsibility Act, to balance the budget and cut taxes2. The Taking Back Our Streets Act to get tough on crime3. The Personal Responsibility Act to cut welfare and tie government aid to work.4. The Family Reinforcement Act (adoption, child support, parents' rights)5. The American Dream Restoration Act ($500 per child tax credit, tax cuts)6. The National Security Restoration Act (military spending)7. The Senior Citizens Fairness Act (Social Security reform)8. The Job Creation and Wage Enhancement Act (more tax cuts)9. The Common Sense Legal Reform Act (tort reform)10. The Citizen Legislature Act (term limits)
Heck, it would take about five minutes to draft a Democratic version, starting with, well, the Fiscal Responsibility Act to end tax cuts to the very wealthy during times of war . . . you get the idea.
A list of Democratic initiatives aimed to clean up corruption in Congress, restore a sane budget (this is where the Common Sense Budget Act comes in), and plug the holes in Homeland Security could easily serve the dual purpose of addressing what's wrong with the Republican regime and reminding Americans what their real priorities are. On the social services front, more than a decade after the first Contract with America, the welfare reform horse has been beaten to death. In some ways, rhetorically at least, that's good for Democrats. It's safe to talk about doing something constructive for the growing numbers of poor people in our country--particularly in the wake of Katrina--without running into welfare-cutting doubletalk.
The massive run-up in the deficit and the billions spent on war call for a shift in priorities. The Democrats need only to pull together and outline their own ten-point plan for restoring safety and sanity to our federal government.
It can be done.