Today, something unusual will happen. Democrats will happily call attention to a new set of Republican proposals, and Republicans ... well, they'll sort of shrug them off. The "Pledge to America" is supposed to be this year's version of 1994's "Contract with America," which supposedly helped to swing independent votes toward Republicans, but even if you accept the version of history in which the Contract mattered in 1994 (the evidence is equivocal at best), you'd be right to be a little skeptical of "The Pledge."
First, a "Pledge," even capitalized, is less meaningful than a promise. I've pledged to my editors that I will refrain from making typos in my blog posts. If I made a contract with them over such errors, I would be significantly poorer.
Second, the reality is that the Republicans will not have a governing majority. This helps explain why several planks of the pledge are straightforward counterpoints to legislation that Democrats have passed. THEY did that, and WE will undo that. There is no affirmative vision for governing because such affirmations are the kiss of death this year. The Pledge is not aimed at a majority at all -- it is aimed at the energized plurality that has embraced economic libertarianism and is prepared to be motivated by the sense that Republican leaders in Congress do share their values after all.
Thirdly, Republicans don't need a Contract or a Pledge. Their base is energized. The Democratic base is not. The folks who are going to vote arguably know Republicans stand for the stuff in the pledge because Republicans have been talking about this stuff since the beginning of the cycle. Arguably, it gives Democrats more of a defined target, something that they can redirect attention to. Arguably, had the Republicans been able to produce a more substantive governing document, they would have made it harder for Democrats to demagogue.
Alas, "The Pledge" is pretty easy to make fun of. And that's just among conservatives. (Erick Erickson calls it
"just meaningless stuff the Democrats can easily undo and that
ultimately the Senate GOP will even turn its nose up at.")
The Democrats and President Obama may have governed with an unpopular agenda, but many of the changes to the fabric of American life are permanent. Republicans will argue they are stains. And now, they'll use "The Pledge" to get rid of them. (A contradiction appears: If what the Democrats did was so dastardly and so different, how is it that Republicans will be so easily able to undo it?)
Republicans did not need a "Pledge." They've given the Democrats a little bit of ammunition for the "referendum versus choice" argument that frames the election. Now, fortunately for Republicans, once popular policies become unpopular when the Democratic Party embraces them, and between now and the election, there isn't likely to be a surge in enthusiasm among voters who like health care reform. The 2010 midterms are a president's first: they're happening amid the deepest recession since the Great Depression, after several cycles in which the Democrats did unusually well in Republican areas, and at a time when the Democratic coalition is distinctly not built for the type of "work in progress" affirmations or rejections that two-year Congressional terms are designed to solicit.
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is a former contributing editor at The Atlantic