home political and economic essays Should Democrats Issue Their Own 'Contract with America'?

Should Democrats Issue Their Own 'Contract with America'?

by David Brin, Ph.D.

This essay (written in 2006, but equally relevant in 2017) would like to take you on a little voyage of exploration. A voyage that — while paying tribute to one of the great pieces of political polemic in American history — will also show how the 1994 "Republican Contract With America" could be brought into fresh, 21st Century relevance. Indeed, it might be turned into a potent weapon — for the Democrats.

Should Democrats Issue Their Own 'Contract with America'?

What follows is a kind of political thought experiment. Please bear with me, for these ideas are still raw. But if they turn out to have any merit....

a rumination

Might the Democratic Party clarify its opposition with the GOP by issuing its own "Contract With the American People"? Let there be no mistake about the difficulty that we face, in finding a way to end the dominance of neoconservatism over American political life. (And by "we" I not only refer to liberals, Democrats and Blue State moderates... but also libertarians, greens, fiscal conservatives, Goldwater conservatives, constitutionalist conservatives and anybody else who wants a country run by grownups, instead of loony amateurs.)

Those who envision inevitable triumph in the President's falling poll numbers are delusional. Yes, Democrats may retake a chamber of Congress in 2006, thus unleashing (finally) committees that are empowered and willing to fulfill their role in providing badly-needed oversight. Accountability at last. Indeed, this trend might even extend to victory in 2008 by the Democratic presidential candidate... or by some Republican like Eisenhower, who would try to unite America and return its government to adult supervision. Still, these "victories" will remain largely meaningless over the long run, unless much more happens.

What's needed is a trouncing defeat of the very idea of so-called "Culture War." The notion — deliberately fostered by the allies of Karl Rove — that this great country should be perpetually divided between those fixated on tomorrow and those obsessed with the past. Only if this notion is decisively repudiated will any party be able to govern without spending almost all of its time mired in bitter, take-no-prisoners-and-never-negotiate partisan war.

Many liberal activists foresee just such a "memic" victory — or a triumph in the battle of ideas — "if only we refine our message." Such people appear to be willfully ignorant of countless other requirements needed, for this to be achieved. The neoconservative movement spent decades and close to a billion dollars reinventing itself during its long exile from power, after defeats in 1964 and 1974. Democrats may need to be just as inventive.

Polls show that average American citizens tend to prefer Democratic policies, such as government transparency, accountability, energy research, improved automotive efficiency standards, moderate environmentalism, tolerance of individual diversity, and responsible attention to international affairs.

Nevertheless, the Republican Party has developed politically innovative tactics to overcome these policy disadvantages and win one victory after another. These tactics range from open policy initiatives — e.g., the "Contract With America" — that sincere people may legitimately and politely argue about, all the way to corruption of both mass media and the voting process. Although many techniques are despicable — such as fomenting "culture war" — it is wrong not to study the tenacity and determination that these innovations represent.

(For a detailed appraisal of how neoconservatives re-invented themselves, learning masterful techniques for attaining power over all three branches of government, see "The Republican Party's Neocon Re-Invention," which discusses how they accomplished it... and what Democrats must do in order to catch up.)

Indeed, a few of the less-dishonorable Republican tactics may merit the highest tribute — imitation.

Take the Republican Contract With America that Newt Gingrich and the first wave of neocons used with startling effectiveness in 1994, during their drive to seize control of Congress. This was political theater of the first order. By offering a primly laid-out "deal" to voters, they gave an impression that clearcut and measurable changes would be delivered, if only the GOP were given a chance at power. Implicit was a devastating implication that the previous (Democratic) Congressional leadership had been degenerate and wicked.

Also implicit? A willing acceptance of punishment if the Contract's promises weren't kept!

The notion of a firm deal struck many people as forthright and determined, representing a clear-eyed sense of purpose. However you feel about details of the "Contract," there can be no arguing with its polemical and political effectiveness.

Of course, neoconservatism has changed a lot since 1994. Newt Gingrich would be the first to tell you that his movement has mutated, almost beyond recognition, including especially a rapid and fervid dive into insatiability and corruption. Certainly, none of today's GOP Congressional leaders would be caught dead mentioning the words "Contract With America." In part, because they remember the punishment that they implicitly accepted, if they were to betray their promises. As they have most certainly and unambiguously done.

I wish to propose that we take a fresh look at the "Contract" — considering how modern Americans — Democrats, and sincere conservatives — might now use it against the monstrosity that neoconservatism has become.

Specifically, there may be an opportunity to:

Adopt a clever methodology and message.
Take advantage of public revulsion over GOP hypocrisy, by highlighting betrayed promises.
Show flexibility and sincerity by enforcing the best ideas to form a better version of conservatism.
Crystallize set of clear goals for a reinvigorated liberalism — goals that might go down very well with the American People.

With this objective in mind, I have attached a copy of the original 1994 Republican "Contract With America." Any reasonable person who looks over the document today would be impressed by how neatly it divides into several kinds of planks:

FIRST: Good ideas that seemed reasonable then, because they were reasonable. These are the promises, of course, that the neocon-dominated GOP most quickly betrayed. Only, suppose that now Democrats were to offer their hand to decent, honest conservatives, by promising to do these good ideas right. (Especially public accountability... for example by instituting measures like the Inspector General of the US, and permanent subpoena power for the Congressional minority.)

NEXT: Conservative ideas that Democrats disagree with, but that sounded at least sincere. These, too, were mostly betrayed. Only now we might say that Democrats are at least willing to negotiate about such things, showing reasonableness... if decent conservatives show reason on the other side.

FINALLY: Dismal/horrid stuff. Endeavors aimed only at benefiting fat cats and aristocrats. Notably, these are the planks of the old GOP contract that actually took effect. Any new Democratic "contract" would replace these planks completely with some excellent LIBERAL ideas.

Note that there are ways to win by addressing all three of these portions of the old "Contract"!

By adopting the good parts (while pointing out Gingrich and his fellow Republicans did not), we seem open, flexible, accommodating. Willing to learn from the past. We are willing to listen to the "message" that the voters sent, in 1994. Above all, we get to point out that the GOP utterly and hypocritically betrayed these principles, by selling out. But we won't.

By offering to negotiate some other conservative wants, if that side shows flexibility too, we will be seen reaching out to the millions of decent American conservatives who are uncomfortable with Bush-ism, but who have till now stayed within Karl Rove's big tent, because of a strawman image of intransigent "liberals."

Finally, by replacing aristocracy-friendly planks with some that benefit our children, we can emphasize the basic differences that make Democrats the party of smart compassion.

Yes, it is predictable that some might criticize this effort as being a copycat imitation of Gingrich in '94. But this assertion can be tested in focus groups. And I believe it is easily refuted.

It is my hypothesis that most people will clearly grasp and appreciate the aggressive aspects of this endeavor, the way it lets us give a scorecard to the '94 Contract, in order to rub neocon noses into their hypocrisy. (For example, the whole bizarre notion that America's military readiness increased under Republican control merits scathing attack! We are less ready for an emergency than we were before 9/11... or even before Pearl Harbor. This is an issue that could truly pry some conservatives away from the GOP!) Moreover, these aggressive aspects are balanced by others, clearly reaching out. Clearly aimed at accommodation with all sincere Americans.

Again, wouldn't it be worthwhile to dummy up a proposed "Democratic Contract" and test it, before a few poll audiences?

Go ahead and glance at the '94 "Contract" while pondering this. I'll be interested which parts people deem worthy of adoption, modification, satire, or fierce repudiation.

first, go examine the Republican Contract With America

You may not remember all the parts. You may not even have read it carefully, when it first came out. But it really was a masterful political stroke, and one that merits study by anyone interested in the art of politics.

So if you need to, take a look... then compare it to my rough draft for a 2006 "Democratic Contract" to follow.

what the Democrats should emulate

Okay, there it is, the ingenious document that set in motion a dramatic turnaround in fortunes for the Republican Party. If you are only able to look upon it with loathing, incapable of appreciating the artful skill — or the reasons that it appealed to American voters in 1994 — then you have only proved that you are too politically blinkered, too channeled by reflex hostility, to see things in a broader perspective.

Of course, such hostility is understandable and human. It is hard to see, in today's ruling coalition of kleptocrats, fanatics and liars, any of the genuine sincerity than many Americans could sense coming from Newt Gingrich and the original wave of "neoconservatives." This may lead one to smugly assume that there was never any sincerity to start with...

... and certainly that would be partly right! Just look at the parts of the Gingrich Contract that were actually implemented versus those that were just for show. Gingrich himself has murmured a sense of betrayal over his own idealistic-but-dashed hopes, that shattered as most of the GOP Congressional leadership spiraled into unprecedented scandal and corruption.

Still, shall we ignore lessons to be learned from 1994 — how citizens can be persuaded using optimism?

Or might we instead try an illuminating experiment? I propose that we dummy up a document that at least plays with Gingrich's formalism, seeing what a "Democratic Contract With America" might look like!

Suppose it accomplishes all those things we mentioned before, exposing hypocrisy and satirizing the failure of that earlier "contract" — while also using its best parts to appeal sincere moderates and conservatives — while firmly clarifying the best consensus liberal proposals. Might it be worth modifying, tempering, and then testing before some focus groups?

Remember that this "contract" is meant to propose reforms that are of real value... but also it is meant to serve as a way to repeatedly highlight GOP betrayals.

Let's see what can be learned from this exercise.

a Democratic contract with the American people

As Democratic Members of the House of Representatives and as citizens seeking to join that body we propose not just to change its policies, but even more important, to restore the bonds of trust between the people and their elected representatives.

We offer these proposals in sincere humility and awareness that so many promises of the past have been broken. We know that fierce accountability must be a tool held by all Americans. So we shall, first and foremost, emphasize restoration of a citizen's right to know, and to hold the mighty accountable. Especially, we will emphasize placing tools of democracy, openness and trust back into the hands of the People. We will also seek to ensure that government re-learns its basic function, to be the efficient, honest and effective tool of the people.

To this end, we shall incorporate lessons of the past and goals for the future, promises that were betrayed and promises that need to be renewed, ideas from left, right and center. But above all, the guiding principle that America is an open society of bold and free citizens. Citizens who are empowered to remind their political servants who is boss.

I: Reform Congress

On the first day of the new Congress, the new Democratic majority will immediately pass the following major reforms, aimed at restoring the faith and trust of the American people in their government:

FIRST: See to it that the best parts of the 1994 Republican "Contract With America" — the parts that were betrayed, ignored and forgotten — are finally and fully implemented, both in letter and in spirit.

Among these good ideas that were betrayed:

requiring all laws that apply to the rest of the country also apply equally to the Congress;
arranging for regular comprehensive audits of Congress for waste, fraud or abuse;
limiting the terms of all committee chairs and party leadership posts;
banning the casting of proxy votes in committee and law-writing by lobbyists;
requiring committee meetings to be open to the public;
guaranteeing an honest accounting of our Federal Budget.

By finally implementing these good ideas, we shall show our openness to learn and reach out, re-establishing a spirit of optimistic bipartisanship with sincere members of the opposing party, bringing to an end the era of unwarranted and vicious political war.

But restoring these broken promises will only be the beginning.

SECOND: Establish rules permanently allowing the minority party one hundred subpoenas per year, plus the time and staff needed to question their own witnesses before open committee hearings, ensuring that Congress will never again betray its Constitutional duty of investigation and oversight, even when the same party holds both Congress and the Executive.

THIRD: Create an ethics process with teeth, including an independent commission to investigate allegations of ethical violations and firm protection for whistle-blowers.

FOURTH: Restore independent advisory agencies for science, technology other areas of skilled analysis, to counsel Congress without bias or dogma-driven pressure. Ensure that technical reports may not be re-written by politicians, changing their meaning at the last minute.

FIFTH: Limit "pork" earmarking of tax dollars to benefit special interests or specific districts. Exceptions must come from a single pool, no larger than one tenth of a percent of the discretionary budget, and must be placed in clearly marked and severable portions of a bill, at least two weeks before the bill is voted upon. Further, limits shall be placed on no-bid, crony, or noncompetitive contracts. Conflict of interest rules will be strengthened. Earmarks may not be inserted into conference reports.

SIXTH: Create an office that is tasked to translate and describe all legislation in easily understandable language, for public posting at least three days before any bill is voted upon, clearly tracking changes or insertions, so that the public (and even members of Congress) may know what is at stake. This office may recommend division of any bill that inserts or combines unrelated or "stealth" provisions.

SEVENTH: Return the legislative branch of government to the people, by finding a solution to the problem of gerrymandering. Encourage and insist that states do this in an evenhanded manner without much net injury to any party, either by using independent redistricting commissions or by minimizing overlap between state legislature districts and those for Congress.

EIGHTH: Create the office of Inspector General of the United States, or IGUS, who will head a uniformed agency akin to the Public Health Service, charged with protecting the ethical health of government. Henceforth, the inspectors in all government agencies will be appointed by and report to IGUS, instead of the officers that they are supposed to inspect. IGUS will advise the President and Congress concerning potential breaches of the law. IGUS will create a corps of trusted observers, cleared to go anywhere and assure the American people that the government is still theirs, to own and control. IGUS will be appointed by a commission consisting of all past presidents and retired justices of the US Supreme Court, with advice and consent of Congress.

II: Reform America

As we saw in 1994, a Contract is not enough. Within the first 100 days of the new Congress, the now-Democratic majority should bring to the House Floor the following bills, each to be given full and open debate, each to be given a clear and fair vote and each to be immediately available this day for public inspection and scrutiny.

1. The New Security for America Act will ensure that top priority goes to America's military and security readiness, especially our nation's ability to respond to surprise threats, including natural disasters or other emergencies. When ordering a discretionary foreign intervention, the President must report probable effects on readiness, as well as the purposes and likely duration of the intervention. Reserves will be augmented and modernized. Reserves shall not be sent overseas without submitting for a Congressionally certified state of urgency that must be renewed at six month intervals. The Commander-in-Chief may not suspend any American law, or the rights of American citizens, without submitting the temporary suspension to Congress for approval in closed session.

2. The New Professionalism Act will protect the apolitical independence of our civil services: intelligence agencies, the scientific and technical staff in executive departments, and the United States Officer Corps. All shall be given safe ways to report attempts at political coercion or meddling in their ability to give unbiased advice. Whistle-blower protections will be strengthened within the US government.

3. The New Secrecy Act will ensure that the recent, skyrocketing use of secrecy — exceeding anything seen during the Cold War — shall reverse course. Independent commissions of highly-trusted Americans shall approve, or set time limits to, all but the most sensitive classifications. These commissions will include some members who are chosen (after clearance) from a random pool of common citizens. Secrecy will not be used as a convenient way to evade accountability.

4. The New Economic Sustainability Act will make it America's priority to pioneer technological paths toward energy independence, emphasizing economic health that also conserves both national and world resources. Ambitious efficiency and conservation standards may be accompanied by compromise free market solutions, with the goal of achieving more with less, while safeguarding the planet for our children.

5. The New Political Reform Act will ensure that the nation's elections take place in a manner that citizens can trust and verify. Political interference in elections will be a feveral crime. Strong auditing procedures and transparency will be augmented by whistleblower protection. New measures will distance government officials from lobbyists. Campaign finance reform will reduce the influence of Big Money over politicians.

6. The New Tax Reform Act will simplify the tax code, while ensuring that everybody pays their fair share. Floors for the Inheritance Tax and Alternative Tax will be raised to ensure they only affect the most wealthy. All tax cuts for the wealthy will be suspended during time of war, so that the burdens of any emergency are shared by all. [This proposal is especially "cutting." The aristocrats who send our sons and daughters — but not their own — to war will have to choose whether to keep their overseas adventures or their tax cuts. Not both. This will elucidate a poorly known fact: That all previous generations of the rich were at least willing to tax themselves during times of urgency, to help pay for wars they would not fight. This provision is not so much an anti-war measure as one that is anti-hypocrisy... a devastating accusation to use against another political side.]

7. The New American Excellence Act will provide incentives for American students to excel at a range of important fields. This nation must especially maintain its leadership, by training more experts and innovators in science and technology. Education must be a tool to help millions of students and adults adapt, to achieve and keep high-paying 21st Century jobs.

8. The New Healthy Children Act will provide basic coverage for all of the nation's children to receive preventive care and needed medical attention. Whether or not adults should get insurance using market methods, a great nation should see to it that the young at least reach adulthood without being handicapped by preventable sickness.

9. The New Truth and Reconciliation Act will issue a challenge to the Administration — a promise to issue no more presidential pardons than both of the previous administrations, combined. Without interfering in the president's constitutional right to issue pardons, Congress will pass a law defining the pardon process, so that all persons who are excused in advance for possible crimes must at least explain those possible crimes, under oath, before walking away from them with a presidential pass.


All right. I know the biggest objection: We don't want to look like copycats.

But please, stop and think.

This is a win-win situation... or at least I contend that it might be such an opportunity.

By reminding voters of those 1994 promises, we might manage to both rebuke the neocons for their betrayal while honoring the millions of Americans who believed the 1994 promises would be kept.

By satirizing the Gingrich Contract, we can deliver a great poke in the eye...

... while also openly reaching out to the more reasonable wing of conservatism. In other words, to the millions of sincere Americans who truly believed they were doing a good thing, back in '94.

Indeed, we might win many such people over, by offering deliverable metrics for a promise to get it right...

...while also using this marvelous technique to boldly outline reasonable liberal measures that the nation desperately needs.

I do not insist that the measures I have proposed — in my rough draft "Contract" — are the only possible ones. In fact, I know new proposals would be added and some erased or changed.

But I do know that this proposal seems reasonable enough to debate, refine, and possibly offer to some focus groups. Test marketing (the way Gingrich did) should tell us whether Americans would see this as "copycat"...

...or a clever way to turn the tables, in an era when agility must be an attribute of political survival!


Should Democrats Issue Their Own 'Contract with America'?

about this article

"Should Democrats Issue Their Own 'Contract with America'?" is published in full here.

Copyright © 2006 by David Brin. All rights reserved.

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David Brin blogs at Contrary Brin and posts social media comments on Facebook, Twitter, Quora, and MeWe specifically to discuss the political and scientific issues he raises in these articles. If you come and argue rationally, you're voting, implicitly, for a civilization that values open minds and discussions among equals.

cited in this article

David Brin, "America's Declining State of Readiness"

David Brin, "Betraying America's State of Readiness"

David Brin, "Free the Inspectors General"

David Brin, "Gerrymandering American Democracy: More Fragile Than We Think"

David Brin, "Repair the U.S. Civil Service"

David Brin, "The Republican Party's Mutant Re-Invention"

David Brin, "Restore Independent Advisory Agencies"

James Fallows, "Washington and the Contract With America"

Newt Gingrich, "A Contract with America"

Rick Perlstein, "How Wily Newt Pulled the 'Contract With America' Scam"

honoring contracts

letting others have their say

Yochai Benkler et al., Network Propaganda

Cailin O'Connor and James Owen Weatherall, The Misinformation Age

Kathleen Hall Jamieson, Cyber War

Samuel P. Huntington, Who Are We? The Challenges to America's National Identity

Francis Fukuyama, Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment

Jacob S. Hacker and Paul Pierson, American Amnesia

Peter Singer, The Most Good You Can Do


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