Where is Our Contract with America?

Republicans can't rely on anti-Obama sentiment alone.

This week’s primary races, in which grassroots conservative candidates had a strong showing, suggest that the political energy is on the Republican side. Yet it is too soon to predict that 2010 will be a replay of 1994, when a voter backlash helped Republicans recapture control of Congress for the first time in 40 years. Consider the May 18th showdown for John Murtha’s vacated congressional seat, which was disappointing for Republicans. In some polls, Tim Burns had been ahead of Mark Critz, and Critz’s 7 point win was bound to provoke a good deal of agonized post mortem analysis. But a crucial and sobering fact eluded everybody: PA12 showed that the decisive factor in the big GOP congressional gains of 1994 is missing this year, and will remain so until the party does something to remedy that.

Rush Limbaugh tried to cheer Republicans up by pointing to the 2 to 1 Democrat registration edge in the district, and assured them that they don’t need to win 2 to 1 districts to still win big in November. But John MCain beat Obama in that district in 2008—where shall Republicans be in the fall if they can’t hold what McCain held while Obama was winning the election? Another argument from Rush was that Critz had run like a Republican, but that one ought not to have appealed to a man who has been saying for years (correctly) that if people are given a choice between a quasi-Democrat (i.e., a liberal Republican) and a Democrat, they’ll naturally opt for the real thing. Burns was the real thing here, but that didn’t help him.

Dick Morris made a more plausible case when he said that in a low turnout election, Democrats came out in bigger numbers because they had been trying to get Arlen Specter out of his Senate seat for years, and now at last had the opportunity to finish him off. There is probably some truth in this, but unfortunately, it exposes a more important truth: Democrats were motivated to turn out but Republicans were not. The real question is why, and the answer casts a very long shadow over the fall elections. The factor which, according to Morris, successfully motivated Democrats was a trivial one: getting even with Specter. Compare this to what might have motivated Republicans: the next six months will be a dangerous time for the country. Democratic leaders know that their ability to implement their agenda may soon be gone, and so in the coming months they will try to ram through every destructive measure they can. Since they have the votes, only one thing will stop them: fear. Specifically, the fear on the part of scores of Democrats that their votes will end their careers. That fear has been stoked by the results of statewide elections in New Jersey, Virginia and Massachusetts, but statewide electorates are so large that they can never be skewed to one side as much as local congressional districts, which means that even in the era of Scott Brown’s win, large local party registration differences can still make a district feel safe. And so a Republican win in a heavily Democrat district would greatly increase fear, and that fear would make the GOP safer in the next six months.

Why didn’t this powerful motive for Republicans to go to the polls outweigh the trivial one that motivated Democrats? The ground should have been fertile: Obama’s approval numbers in the district were much lower than the national average. But Republican voters were not motivated by this powerful case because Republican leaders were not able to make it effectively. They lacked the energy and focus needed to inspire their side to vote, and so, squandered their advantage. That is a troubling lesson of the PA12 result.

There has been much discussion of the resemblance between this fall and 1994, when the GOP made large gains to take the House. The constant theme of the comparisons has been the similarity between HillaryCare and ObamaCare as sources of deep disillusion with the sitting President, and this similarity is widely assumed to be enough to make for a comparable Republican sweep this fall. But this thinking ignores a crucial factor that was present in 1994 and is not present this year: highly effective, focused and energetic leadership.

In 1994, Newt Gingrich wasn’t content to let people vote against the incumbent Democrats—he gave them something to vote for: the Contract with America. The Contract gave the campaign a clear focus, and it projected drive and energy. Newt was a compelling figure in front of the TV cameras: charismatic, full of ideas, exuding confidence and competence. What would the 1994 election have been like without dynamic, focused leadership pushing a clearly delineated positive agenda? It might well have been like PA12 this year, and that is why Republicans need to take that result seriously if they are to avoid the same outcome this fall.

In the House, energy, ideas, and strategic thought come from Paul Ryan (the Roadmap) and Eric Cantor, but not from the wooden, unimaginative John Boehner. In the Senate, waves are made by the likes of Jon Kyl and Jim DeMint, but not by the passive Mitch McConnell. Neither Boehner nor McConnell has the charisma or the focus needed to dominate a TV screen. Nor do they have strategic judgment–remember them on Scozzafava or amnesty? Where is this Republican leadership’s equivalent of a Contract with America for the fall election? In PA12, voters were asked to vote against the Pelosi-Reed agenda, but they were not given anything to vote for. Both Boehner and McConnell seem to think they can coast to victory on a wave of anti-Obama sentiment, but that’s not what produced 1994’s big win. I have seen this slogan for the fall elections: Boehner for Speaker. That’s a sure way to put GOP voters to sleep.

Spokesmen for liberal ideas are everywhere in the media, but Republicans are given few opportunities to make their case, and so must make sure that what chances they have are used to maximum effect. That’s why an ability to use TV to explain conservative ideas quickly and easily in crisp, forceful language is indispensable in GOP leaders. In 1994, the GOP seemed for once to understand that, and passed over more senior figures to anoint a natural leader in Newt Gingrich. But since then, it has gone back to its old ways, installing people with seniority but without ideas or energy, all but guaranteeing defeat with uncharismatic, lifeless figures like Denny Hastert and Bob Dole.

At the moment, tea party energy occasionally supplies some of what is missing in the leadership, but that can never be more than sporadic. Ordinary people can sustain their extraordinary efforts for only so long before the demands of their own lives reassert themselves. It’s not surprising that tea party energy suddenly disappeared in PA12. In any case, energy without the kind of focus provided by effective leadership can be dangerous, as the quirky Rand Paul’s nomination showed. Tea parties are a symptom of what is wrong with the GOP, not an antidote to it.

The real lesson of PA12 is this:  if Republicans were hoping for a repeat of 1994 this fall, then they had better prepare themselves for a disappointment—unless and until the GOP understands how it won in 1994, and accordingly moves to correct the disastrous leadership deficit that was on clear display in PA12. If the party persists in approaching its best opportunity in many years with its present passive, uninspired and uninspiring leadership, it will thoroughly deserve that old label: the stupid party.