On September 27, 1994, the Republican minority in the House of Representatives gathered on the steps of the Capitol to unveil their agenda for the upcoming midterms. In a document signed by all but two sitting members and every non-incumbent candidate, they committed to supporting 10 specific measures in their first 100 days of the next Congress. Engineered by then-Minority Leader and soon-to-be Speaker Newt Gingrich, the Contract with America marked the first time in modern history that a congressional caucus coalesced around an explicit legislative program without direction from the White House.
It was, as they say, a different time. Almost 30 years after the Contract with America and approaching a decade since Donald Trump descended the golden escalator, Republicans have almost given up on the pretense that they're interested in legislating. In 2020, the party did not bother to update its 2016 platform, offering only a statement of continued support for then-President Trump. On Fox News this week, current Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (Calif.) offered mostly vague platitudes about what measures he might pursue if he follows in Gingrich's footsteps.
One reason for Republicans' confusion is structural. The combination of voluntary residential sorting, intentional gerrymandering, and straight-ticket voting that characterize 21st-century politics increases the incentives to appeal to existing supporters. The authors of the Contract with America assumed Republicans needed to prove to swing voters that they could be trusted with power after more than 40 years in the minority. Today, the challenge is to fire up partisans who care more about owning libs than specific policies.
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Another reason is ideological. The Contract with America was the distilled product of the movement conservatism that some intellectuals now deride as the "dead consensus." The framing was borrowed from Ronald Reagan's 1988 State of the Union address, while the Heritage Foundation developed many of the actual proposals. Today's GOP is more torn between libertarian and populist tendencies on domestic policy and hawkish and restrained attitudes toward foreign affairs.
Finally, the elephant in the room is the former president and presumptive 2024 nominee himself. While much of the party leadership would prefer to move on quietly, Trump remains obsessed with vindicating his delusional but apparently sincere belief that he was cheated of victory by massive fraud — and punishing those who publicly disagree. His popularity with Republican voters makes it difficult to talk about anything else.
Still, it's worth trying to imagine what a plausible 2022 agenda might look like. To be successful, such an endeavor would have to be broad enough to attract support from different wings of the party, yet combative enough to mobilize the base. That's a tall order, but I don't think it's insurmountable. Taking the 1994 Contract as a model, accepting a certain level of vagueness about the details, and drawing liberally from proposals that elected officials and wonks have already put on the table, the result might look a bit like this:
A few caveats are in order. The first is that this list doesn't cover all the matters currently under debate. Instead, I've tried to restrict the program to measures that are more or less within the purview of the congressional majority. Some of these efforts might struggle in the Senate or face a veto from the White House. But that's okay. You can set the agenda even if not every proposal succeeds.
A second constraint is that I've tried to find ways to moderate tensions among Republican factions, if not entirely to resolve them. That requires splitting the difference on issues including immigration and punting on elections policy, where partisan reactions are grossly disproportionate to any real problems. The results may be a bit fuzzy and unsatisfying, but that's a risk in building any coalition.
Despite the attempt to offer concessions to the party's MAGA contingent, though, these proposals are intended to help candidates running in marginal districts, including those that supported President Biden in 2020. As Henry Olsen has argued, a GOP with no room for "RINOs" is a GOP that will struggle to win. Although it's remembered as the manifesto for the "Gingrich revolution," the 1994 Contract with America was limited to measures that enjoyed broad and often bipartisan support in polls.
If today's Republicans hope to wield legislative influence rather than eking out a majority and waiting for 2024, they would be wise to follow that example. It's entirely possible that this blueprint wouldn't be satisfying enough to enough Republican members of Congress or voters. So far, though, there's no better alternative available.
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