The Ripon Forum

Volume 48, No. 3

September 2014

The Contract with America: A Model for Campaigning… and Governance

By on September 19, 2014

by BARRY JACKSON

Barry Jackson photoShortly after more than 350 men and women from around the country joined together to sign the Contract with America, a panicked House challenger phoned me.  He had just received a call from the political director of the RNC telling him that embracing the Contract was a sure path to defeat and if he wanted to win and continue to receive support from the Party, he needed to quit talking about the Contract and just focus on wrapping President Clinton and his policies around his opponent’s neck.

Twenty years on, the question of whether an agenda matters in an election remains a fundamental debate in the political world.  Most campaign operatives believe Republicans won the 1994 election simply by riding the tide of voter anger directed at President Clinton and a corrupt Democrat Congress.  Maybe they’re right.  Frankly, it doesn’t matter because a group of determined House GOP leaders, backed by the RNC chairman, believed putting forth an agenda was an essential component to victory regardless of the counsel of political consultants.  Those leaders knew they were going to live the consequences of a victory they were confident was within reach and they planned to be prepared to govern on day one.

The lessons and consequences of the Contract are still relevant.  And getting back to a Contract-like mentality may be key to the revival of our democracy and the future of democratic movements around the world.  Today, as we watch nascent democracies struggle to take root, it’s easy to see a common thread.  People’s lack of faith in democratic government rises as their elected leaders fail to deliver on the promised policies and reforms which contributed to their election.

Getting back to a Contract-like mentality may be key to the revival of our democracy and the future of democratic movements around the world.

And at home, is it so different?

Campaign consultants driving candidates into cul-de-sacs of failure with unachievable commitments and promises feed into voter anger and resentment at all-time highs.  Candidates transition into government and find no easy path to fulfilling their unrealistic pledges so revert back to campaign rhetoric, eagerly lapped up and regurgitated by the ever open maw of social and electronic media.  And worse, they abdicate their responsibility to their constituents and each other by failing to participate in the basic functioning of the government institutions they were elected to, hoping the next election will somehow bend the government and their colleagues to their own world views.

The Contract, in contrast, provides a rational model of campaigning and governance.  Its beauty is it so seamlessly serves the needs of both.

As a quick reminder, the Contract did three things: outlined a set of reforms the House would undertake to change the internal operations of the Chamber; put forth 10 bills for review with a commitment to bring each bill to the floor under an open committee and amendment process for a vote; and asked to judge the signatories in the following election upon whether they had fulfilled their end of the Contract. While the campaign side relied upon a TV Guide ad to launch the effort (Cut it out and post it on your refrigerator…how funny in today’s age of smart phones and tablets), the actual Contract itself was a governing document, drafted by Members based upon legislative language.

That may sound simple enough, but it was a long process to develop.  Surveys did assist in creating the document, but not in the fashion the cynical coverage of the time would have one believe.  Rather, it evolved through a process of dialogue amongst the current House members and the candidates hoping to join their ranks.  Starting with the candidates, a survey was taken of what issues the candidates themselves wanted included.  Beyond the proffered items in the survey such as a balanced budget amendment or pro-growth tax reform, candidates were asked to include their own ideas.  A similar survey was also taken by the incumbents.  The range and scope of ideas submitted by both were profound.  Using the filter of broad public support as determined by readily available public polling for inclusion, all ideas meeting the test were then sorted into like areas.

What was surprising beyond the range of issues candidates and Members submitted for consideration was the level of specificity.  They wanted more than slogans to describe what rebuilding our national defense or reforming welfare meant.  They wanted real, measurable, non-mumbo jumbo language to put before the voters so there could be no question as to what the public could expect if Republicans were honored with a majority for the first time in 40 years.  Individual teams of Members and committee staff, coordinated by the Conference Chair and his staff, rolled up their sleeves and hammered out actual legislative language for all the items with a seriousness borne of the belief these bills would ultimately find their way to the floor of the House.

From a campaign standpoint, the product of this effort offered an alternative to a Democrat governing agenda which voters felt was not what they had voted for in 1992.  Democrats were gleeful at the introduction of the Contract as they saw it as an opportunity to take voters’ attention off President Clinton’s failures and focus on the alleged extremism of Republicans.  But well prepared with an understanding of the contents of the Contract, Republican candidates not only defended against the overwrought charges of the left, but pushed back with effective counter-attacks on the failure of Democrats to govern as promised or to achieve the policy success they hoped.  In doing so, the Contract provided a clear contrast in which independent, open-minded voters could cast their ballot.  And on Election Day, because of the NRCC, the Republicans had candidates capable of riding their boards safely along the outer edges of an electoral wave to the first House majority in 40 years.

All but a few of the successful candidates had affixed their name or commitment to the Contract, and the agenda was clear.  They had signed on to a document of not only policy initiatives, but an explicit commitment to each other to join together in governing.

Which is the moment the true value of the Contract came into play.

When an assortment of commentators, activists and late-comers started to ponder on next moves, they threw out their own set of ideas – or demands – for the newly elected Majority to get to work on.  They found no traction, especially amongst the incoming freshman class.  All but a few of the successful candidates had affixed their name or commitment to the Contract, and the agenda was clear.  They had signed on to a document of not only policy initiatives, but an explicit commitment to each other to join together in governing, accepting an open process assuring their voices were heard, their amendments offered and a vote taken for those who might not agree with all the policy.

Because the agenda and process was defined, the leadership and the members had a five month period in which to learn the mechanics of running the greatest of all democratic institutions.  From managing the floor or a committee hearing to balancing the different views within the Conference; from building outside coalitions to support their governing efforts to conveying accomplishment to their constituents, the Contract gave all members a chance to learn, grow and achieve together.  They learned to be a team managing thru the next twelve years of success and turmoil on the foundation of what they had achieved together with the Contract.

And the candidate who called?  He stuck with the Contract and won his election.

___________________________________

Barry Jackson served as Executive Director of the Contract with America.  He also served as Assistant to the President to President George W. Bush and as Chief of Staff to Speaker John Boehner.  He currently serves as Strategic Advisor at Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck, Managing Director of The Lindsey Group and Board Director of the National Endowment for Democracy.

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