Republicans have been tagged as the "Party of No" — unfairly, they argue, despite what their Democratic opponents say is persuasive evidence to the contrary.
Sept. 27, 1994: Then-House Minority Whip Newt Gingrich and other Republicans unveil their "Contract with America" at a Capitol Hill rally.
Sept. 27, 1994: Then-House Minority Whip Newt Gingrich and other Republicans unveil their "Contract with America" at a Capitol Hill rally. John Duricka/AP
But soon the party — which has employed a disciplined, man-the-barricades strategy in attempts to block White House legislative efforts, from a health care overhaul to Wall Street reforms — will unveil a midterm agenda.
And in a campaign climate that increasingly favors their party, Republican leaders in the House have insisted that the plan will include specific initiatives on how they would tackle the economy, spending and, of course, health care law — or the repeal or rollback of the overhaul advocated by President Obama and his fellow Democrats.
"Whatever we include in this agenda will be something that we will fight to accomplish — a list of deliverables that have the support of the American people," says Brendan Buck of the House Republicans' legislative initiatives office.
House Minority Leader John Boehner, appearing to position himself as speaker-in-waiting in recent highly publicized speeches, has begun to prepare the ground for the party's plan, knocking White House economic policy and committing to the war in Afghanistan.
In August, current House Minority Leader John Boehner of Ohio delivered an economic address in Cleveland.
In August, current House Minority Leader John Boehner of Ohio delivered an economic address in Cleveland. Mark Duncan/AP
But despite promising-for-Republicans midterm election polls and prognostications, the agenda is being written for a party that's in flux and increasingly fragmented — not only buffeted by the Tea Party fiscal conservatives who have helped dump party regulars like incumbent Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski, but also pressured by loyalists alarmed at the party's direction.
"Republicans have been united strongly on what they're against, not what they're for," says Donald Kettl, dean of the University of Maryland's public policy school and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.
"Their challenge is to galvanize around an agenda," Kettl says, a task he characterizes as complicated by the party's emerging and evolving factions.
And that includes the one represented by the huge crowd of Tea Party activists and others who showed up Saturday for conservative radio and Fox News Channel talk show host Glenn Beck's religious-themed rally on Washington's National Mall — a gathering that writer Christopher Hitchens suggested reflected "white unease" in a rapidly changing country.
Not Quite 'Contract With America,' The Sequel
The new GOP agenda is yet unbranded — the party has been collecting suggestions on a website it calls "America Speaking Out."
But, please, don’t call it a new-century Contract with America, the seminal 1994 manifesto issued by then-House Minority Whip Newt Gingrich just weeks before Republicans won surprise control of the House — the party's first majority in the chamber in four decades.
What will come from Republicans in mid-September, when Congress returns from its summer break, will "be its own document," Buck says. And it will be one that party leaders say they hope will help galvanize a message, and support, but very likely won't be as bold as the '94 contract.
The 1994 "Contract with America" included a pledge from Republicans that within the first 100 days of the 104th Congress they would introduce 10 major pieces of legislation:
— The "Fiscal Responsibility Act" (balanced budget; tax limits; line-item veto)
— The "Taking Back Our Streets Act" (anti-crime package)
— The "Personal Responsibility Act" (work-for-welfare; no welfare for minor mothers)
— The "Family Reinforcement Act" (anti-child-pornography laws; tax incentives for adoption)
— The "American Dream Restoration Act" (middle-class savings accounts; $500 per child tax credits)
— The "National Security Restoration Act" (no U.S. troops under U.N. command; funds for national security)
— The "Senior Citizens Fairness Act" (raise the Social Security earnings limit; repeal tax hike on benefits)
— The "Job Creation and Wage Enhancement Act" (cut capital gains; enhance small-business "incentives")
— The "Common Sense Legal Reform Act" (product liability "reform"; limits on punitive damages)
— The "Citizen Legislature Act" (term limits for lawmakers)
Though politicos continue to debate the Contract with America's effect on the 1994 midterm election — "we'll be fighting about that forever," says Kettl — there is no argument that it provided GOP lawmakers with a legislative blueprint after their unexpected takeover of the House.
While the anti-government sentiment today is similar to that of the mid-1990s, when Democrat Bill Clinton occupied the White House, experts argue that there are more differences in the current political world than similarities to that time.
Today's economy is in much worse shape, and Republican agenda-writers face unique and decidedly delicate intraparty issues that didn't exist back then, say experts like Kettl and James Gimpel, both of whom have written extensively about the original Contract with America.
"The biggest difference between now and then is that in 1994 there were only one or two people who thought that a Republican takeover of the House was even possible," says Gimpel, a University of Maryland government professor and former Capitol Hill staffer.
"Now, polls and other indicators suggest that a takeover by Republicans is possible, and maybe even likely," says Gimpel, author of Legislating Revolution: The Contract with America In Its First 100 Days. "That seems to me to place a little more weight on the agenda."
He and others have described the original Contract with America as a set of slogans to draw together the GOP caucus — not a document most expected they would have to act on. The growing possibility that the party could win the House suggests, Gimpel says, that the new document "might not be as impressive as the Contract with America in terms of its reach and boldness."
The original contract set out 10 legislative initiatives, from balancing the budget and overhauling the welfare system to requiring congressional term limits and placing limits on adjudicated punitive damages.
The lasting effect of the original contract, outside of the welfare overhaul — which Clinton appropriated as his success — is also debatable. Though Gingrich, as speaker, brought all of the contract's issues to votes in his first 100 days, most died in the Senate or on the president's desk. Gingrich resigned after the party suffered damaging losses in the 1998 midterms.
Kettl, co-author of Fine Print: The Contract With America, Devolution, and the Administrative Realities of American Federalism, argues that the contract's biggest legacy may be simply that it happened and served as a rallying cry for Republicans and told the country where the party stood.
"Its most immediate legacy, however, was the 1996 re-election of Clinton and the resulting fragmentation of politics," he says. "Though it's wrong to blame the contract for all of that, the ensuing political battles have taken us to a very bad place for government."
What Will It Say?
Republican leaders remain circumspect about the precise ambitions of their agenda, including whether it will delve into the sensitive social issues of same-sex marriage, for example, or address some Tea Party activists' desires, including phasing out Social Security and shuttering the Department of Education.
But it is almost certain to include pledges to reduce the deficit, rein in spending, create jobs, roll back — or repeal — the recent health care overhaul, and "crack down" on illegal immigration. That last issue remains a hot button on the campaign trail despite evidence that, as the Pew Hispanic Center reported Wednesday, the number of illegal immigrants in the U.S. has fallen for the first time in 20 years thanks in large part to increased enforcement along the borders and tough economic times that have made jobs harder to get.
The economy has given Republicans plenty of fodder. The national unemployment rate has remained stubbornly close to 10 percent, and the Census Bureau reported this week that federal domestic spending increased by a record 16 percent last year, to $3.2 trillion. Much of that, the bureau reported, was due to aid to the unemployed and the economic stimulus package.
California Republican Rep. Kevin McCarthy, who chairs the "America Speaking Out" project, has used the metaphor of a Washington "drunk with power" where "elites" are living the good life, while "Main Street" is "choked with fear and anxiety."
Those themes are expected to run through the Republican agenda. Currently, that image of America is being promoted by GOP House members in Speaking Out town meetings across the country.
"The No. 1 issue that we've been hearing across the country has been the economy — the lack of jobs, the uncertainty out there that's hurting investing and hurting job creation, and the deficit," McCarthy said Wednesday. The House GOP agenda, he says, won't just be triggered to what happens after the election. It will also include legislation that leaders plan to introduce before then. "You will see legislation introduced and pushed that will help create jobs and control spending," McCarthy added.
The blueprint will also include measures, McCarthy said, that look to "the reform of Washington itself," including requirements for reading proposed bills. Republicans have already said they will push for that "Read the Bill" legislation, which would require that bills be posted online for 72 hours before being submitted for a final vote in the House. Democratic leaders have stymied the proposal.
Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images
President Obama's "worst nightmare" is an "educated voter," according to this woman who attended broadcaster Glenn Beck's "Restoring Honor" rally Saturday in Washington. Can Republicans convince her and those who favor the Tea Party that they've got a better plan?
President Obama's "worst nightmare" is an "educated voter," according to this woman who attended broadcaster Glenn Beck's "Restoring Honor" rally Saturday in Washington. Can Republicans convince her and those who favor the Tea Party that they've got a better plan? Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images
At the Speaking Out website, which has been subject to some online hazing (proponents of legalizing marijuana, for example, have mounted an impressive effort to get that on the GOP agenda), turning back the health care overhaul, fiscal discipline, and deporting illegal immigrants have been common themes.
New World Anger
Democratic pollster and strategist Doug Schoen suggests that Republicans would be well-advised to stick with basic fiscal issues that have driven the Tea Party movement, but steer clear of the more controversial positions taken by some of the movement's favorites, including GOP Senate candidates Rand Paul in Kentucky and Sharron Angle in Nevada.
"What is animating and motivating people are fiscal issues," says Schoen, who, with conservative-leaning pollster Scott Rasmussen, has written a new book, Mad As Hell: How the Tea Party Movement Is Fundamentally Remaking Our Two-Party System. The book is scheduled for release Sept. 14.
"Since the Republican Party itself has been largely bereft of ideas, the Tea Parties provide it an outline for an agenda, if not a program," he says. "From where I sit, it's critically important to the health of the Republican Party that it adhere to Tea Party fiscal principles as articulated."
Schoen also scolds Democrats for failing to respond to fiscal issues that motivated Tea Party adherents, and for not competing for a segment of those voters — especially during the past year when the unpopularity of the Republican Party, as a whole, rivaled the disdain heaped on Democrats. According to USA Today/Gallup survey results released Wednesday, more people now trust Republicans when it comes to the economy and jobs.
Rasmussen, the pollster, says that if he were giving Republicans advice, it would be this: "Say you will vote to repeal health care, but replace it with more popular reforms — people want health care reform."
"Come up with something on jobs and the economy, but put it in the context of why increasing government spending is bad for the economy, for your children and grandchildren," he also advises. "Anything you talk about that moves away from the economy, spending and the deficit dilutes the message."
"I'm not saying that this is healthy for the nation," Rasmussen says, but it's a good political strategy.
Bottom line, he says: "Whatever the agenda says, they better be prepared to act on it."
And as Gingrich discovered, and GOP leaders are no doubt learning, an agenda can be a very tricky thing indeed.