Reactions to the 'Pledge to America': Mixed, but Mostly Negative

GOP congressional leaders unveiled the "Pledge to America" in Sterling, Va. J. Scott Applewhite / AP

This morning, Republican leaders are officially unveiling their "Pledge to America," the plan that is intended to take up the mantle of Newt Gingrich's 1994 "Contract With America," the founding document of the Republican takeover that year. But the plan's been circulating since Wednesday, and battle lines are already drawn.

My colleague Ben Adler brought the quick reaction yesterday evening, arguing that the plan is unlikely to inspire. And so, far it looks like he's mostly right. (For a good summary of the pledge's specifics, read Ben's post or this round-up in The Washington Post.)

First, we'll dispense with the predictable criticism on the left. The document obviously wasn't intended for them. The core liberal rebuttal, which is nicely exemplified by this Jonathan Chait post, is that Republicans are promising the same old, but that—crucially—the plan appears to be more likely to add to the budget deficit than to reduce or eliminate it.

But it doesn't look as if all right-wingers are going to be placated by the pledge, either. RedState's Erick Erickson fired a classic broadside Wednesday night, calling it "Perhaps the most ridiculous thing to come out of Washington since George McClellan," and paraphrasing Abraham Lincoln's famous putdown of the general to request that if John Boehner and Eric Cantor "do not want to use the GOP to lead, I would like to borrow it for a time."

On the opposite end of the conservative spectrum is moderate David Frum, who laughs at Erickson's indignation. The fact is, the GOP leadership has a stranglehold on the party's platform, Frum writes; that means they won't give in to the sweeping changes Tea Partiers like Erickson want, because they don't want to alienate their aging, white base with cuts to entitlements.

The substance of his critique turns out to be basically the same as Chait's: despite lofty rhetoric, there's really nothing new, policywise. The ideas for cutting the budget are basically the same as they were in 1994—and that approach didn't work. After all, the GOP expanded the budget more than Democrats. Erickson signs off, "I will vote Republican in November of 2010. But I will not carry their stagnant water." (There's more fire-breathing on RedState here.)

tea-party PHOTOS: A History of America's Conservative Reactionary Movements Shane Bevel / AP

But Frum doesn't like it either, saying that given the piecemeal approach on big issues, there's no real agenda for governing: "I’d like to see a Modern Republicanism that responds better to the needs of the country, while retaining still the Tea Party’s reforming spirit. What I fear is the worst of all worlds: a Republican majority that rejects not only extremist ideas, but all ideas."

One exception: National Review, which wasted no time writing a fiercely positive editorial backing the pledge. The editors have praise for each component of the plan, but their overall thinking is so far removed from Frum's and Erickson's that it's hard to believe everyone's working from the same document:

The inevitable question will be: Is the pledge as bold as the Contract?

The answer is: The pledge is bolder. The Contract with America merely promised to hold votes on popular bills that had been bottled up during decades of Democratic control of the House. The pledge commits Republicans to working toward a broad conservative agenda that, if implemented, would make the federal government significantly smaller, Congress more accountable, and America more prosperous.

Power Line's John Hinderaker has a similar, though less specific, reaction.

As the debate plays out today, it will be interesting to see who gets marshaled by whom. Republicans are famously effective at message control, and dissenters are quickly brought into line (see, for example, Karl Rove, who blasted Christine O'Donnell the night of her primary victory but was frantically covering his tracks within a couple of days). But with so much division, it isn't clear who will win.

Of course, as Ben noted, it probably won't matter in the short term. Republicans are in the catbird seat in November regardless. But someone's going to have to win once it comes down to governance: either Tea Partiers will have to compromise with the leadership and drop some of their revolutionary fervor, or the leadership will bend.

One valedictory point: there's a discussion going on about whether releasing this document was a smart strategy. With polls overwhelmingly in its favor, the GOP doesn't need this, and the "Contract With America" wasn't really as important to the 1994 victory as the legend would suggest. Marc Ambinder says it's just handing live rounds to Democrats, and besides, offering a "pledge" sounds weak-kneed besides the more forceful, binding "contract"; Ezra Klein thinks voters will just be confused.

But after months of styling themselves as obstructionists, one can see why Republicans want to prove they've got an agenda for governing. And just as the impact of the "Contract With America" is overblown, don't look for the "Pledge to America" to dramatically change much.

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