Will 'Pledge' Get Republicans to the Promised Land?

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Larry Downing / Reuters

House minority leader John Boehner unveils "A Pledge to America," a 45-page document detailing the Republicans' new governing agenda

In a lumber warehouse 30 miles from Washington, House Republican leaders on Thursday unveiled "A Pledge to America," the most revealing look yet at how the party claims it would lead if it regains control of the lower chamber in November. "This new governing agenda, built by listening to the people, offers plans to create jobs, cut spending and put power where it belongs: in the hands of the people," said minority leader John Boehner. By giving voters a peek at their playbook six weeks before the midterm elections, Republicans attempted to neutralize charges that the GOP had become the "party of no." But it remains unclear how Republicans intend to implement some of their central ideas — or whether doing so would solve the problems they have identified.

The 45-page document — laced with florid language about American ideals, inspirational quotations and glossy images — is a mix of policy proposals and campaign-season agitprop. "In a self-governing society, the only bulwark against the power of the state is the consent of the governed, and regarding the policies of the current government, the governed do not consent," the authors write. The pledge is divided into five sections: economic revival and job creation, government spending, health care, congressional reform and national security. In each area, Republican members promise a smaller, stingier government — the antithesis of "the tyranny of unchecked government action" practiced by the Obama Administration, as West Virginia Representative Shelley Moore Capito put it.

Some of their specific ideas, like an across-the-board permanent extension of the Bush-era tax cuts, are familiar elements of the party's platform. Others — from repealing health care reform to ending the Troubled Asset Relief Program and canceling unspent stimulus cash — would unwind "job-killing" Democratic policies that turned "the land of opportunity into the land of shrinking prosperity," according to Representative Kevin McCarthy of California, one of the architects of the party's midterm strategy. And for the most part, the new proposals — for example, ending government control of the foundering mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, trimming the congressional budget, returning nonsecurity discretionary spending to 2008 levels and imposing a net hiring freeze for most federal employees — don't go far enough to erase the federal deficit.

The pledge evokes the 1994 Contract with America, which helped unleash a Republican wave that returned the party to power two years into Bill Clinton's presidency. It was hashed out with input from an energized electorate that submitted scores of suggestions on the Internet. "The proposals House Republicans will put forward today are clear proof that, unlike Democrats in Washington, Republicans have been listening intently to Americans over the past year and a half," said Senator Mitch McConnell, the Senate Republican leader. The pledge also appears to draw some inspiration from the Contract from America concocted this year by Tea Party leaders. "The 'Pledge to America' is a great first step in the campaign for limited government and fiscally sound economic policy," said Ryan Hecker, a Houston Tea Party leader who organized the Contract from America.

But in many ways it is only a first step. Republicans have diagnosed the Democratic Congress as too big, too meddlesome and too profligate, yet prescribe only partial antidotes. While the pledge stresses deficit reduction and reining in spending, it provides no firm target for balancing the budget. Its promise to extend the Bush tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans would actually grow the national debt by hundreds of billions of dollars. The same is true for repealing the Affordable Care Act, which according to a Congressional Budget Office assessment will trim the deficit $140 billion over 10 years. By highlighting national security as one of the party's central tenets, the GOP indicated an unwillingness to pare back defense spending.

The pledge is also vague about the potential for reforming entitlements, another political third rail that eats up vast swaths of the federal budget. The pledge vows to "make the decisions that are necessary to protect our entitlement programs for today's seniors and future generations. That means requiring a full accounting of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, setting benchmarks for these programs and reviewing them regularly, and preventing the expansion of unfunded liabilities." For his part, Boehner dodged a question on the topic, allowing only that party leadership was ready to have an "adult conversation" about entitlements.

Buoyed by a political tailwind, the GOP certainly had incentive to shy away from specifics in order to leave opponents a smaller target at which to shoot. Democrats took aim anyway, blasting the pledge as a return to Bush Administration policies. "Our country is just starting to get well again. We can't afford to suffer the same failed ideas of the past," said majority whip James Clyburn of South Carolina.

Even some Republicans pronounced the document weak tea. Conservative blogger and CNN commentator Erick Erickson dubbed it "dreck, full of mom-tested, kid-approved pabulum." Andrew Roth of the Club for Growth, a conservative advocacy group, wrote, "I want to endorse it, but it's so milquetoast that it proves to me that these guys just aren't ready to lead." Eager to cement their uneasy alliance with an energized Tea Party, Republicans featured several planks inspired by the movement, including the proposed requirement that each bill passed by Congress cite the constitutional clause that justifies it. Other grass-roots favorites were missing, including a ban on earmarks or a balanced-budget amendment. Boehner said the document was not meant to be comprehensive and warned observers not to read too much into their absence. "This is not intended to be a party platform," he said.

The event was carefully stage-managed to frame the contrast between the Democratic Congress the pledge assails for "thwart[ing] the will of the people" and Republicans who say they will restore "America's founding values." In a year when Washington itself has become a favorite piñata, the outside-the-Beltway location was telling. After a roundtable discussion with small-business owners, Republican leaders held their press conference in Tart Lumber, a sawdust-suffused space filled with shrink-wrapped supplies, empty boxes and stacks of plywood and drywall. In addition to Boehner and McCarthy, the roster of speakers included several members poised to assume a larger role if Republicans reclaim a majority, including Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee, Peter Roskam of Illinois, Jeb Hensarling and Mac Thornberry of Texas, Bill Cassidy of Louisiana and Jason Chaffetz of Utah. Fanning out across a makeshift stage, they eschewed the standard Washington uniform in favor of weekend attire — open collars, loafers and, in some cases, jeans — chuckled at each other's jokes and nodded at punch lines.

Outside the venue, a small cluster of supporters twirled flags and chanted slogans like "No more pork" and "We like business." At one point, the crowd spotted Indiana's Mike Pence — a Tea Party favorite who purportedly fought successfully for the inclusion of social causes like "traditional marriage" and a ban on federally funded abortion in the document — and broke into a "Hip, hip, hooray" cheer, prompting Pence to stroll over to shake hands and autograph a baseball. Another member of the group presented Boehner with a silver teakettle. Nearby, a few stray Democrats surveyed the scene in frustration. "They're pandering to people's immediate priorities," says Stevens Miller, a member Virginia's Loudoun County board of supervisors. "That's understandable. People want to know about their job security. But watch out. When the smoke clears on the economy, they'll be back with just enough smaller government to oppress your rights."