CONGRESSIONAL REPUBLICANS introduced “A Pledge to America” in September 2010 as part of their election strategy. It is neither a fabulous nor a famous document, and it would be hard to claim that “A Pledge to America” caused the Republican victories in November, just as it is usually hard to attribute big results to programmatic political statements. Even so, this statement may have gotten less attention than it deserves, especially from left-of-center publications and analysts. It may have been effective in two ways.
We know that the scale of the Republican victories in the House exceeded what most analysts, including political scientists and economists, expected. Everyone knows that a bad economy hurts the party in power, which usually suffers midterm election losses in any case. But models focused on those dynamics anticipated smaller Republican gains than the ones we saw. The aggressive Republican effort to attack the Obama administration and the House Democrats as dogmatic advocates of higher taxes and larger government may have had a significant additional effect on the outcome. “A Pledge to America” was representative of, and may have contributed to, the shifting of the political argument to the right.
The other reason that “A Pledge to America” may have been politically effective has to do with intra-Republican and movement-party relations on the Right. The document mediates the main concerns of the Tea Party movement without simply capitulating to its favored forms of expression and its most extreme commitments. The lack of focus on constitutional themes was no doubt disappointing to many Tea Party leaders, but it is hard to see how the document’s overall position could be seen as unfriendly. In sum, “A Pledge to America” is a good model of how Republicans can articulate basic positions in a clear and effective way in the immediate political context.
The document outlines a set of commitments—to reduce taxes and government spending, reduce the size and scope of the federal government, repeal the recently passed national health care legislation, and make procedures more transparent in Congress, especially in the House.
Although the authors often use the term plan—as in a plan for new economic growth—the document lacks many of the normal aspects of a strategic plan. Proponents of “A Pledge to America” might say that this statement simply reflects my own left-of-center biases. In a predictably tiresome way, I expect a plan to look like a detailed blueprint for more and more ambitious government action. Instead, a plan to cut taxes should simply mean cutting taxes.
In fact “A Pledge to America” is not the sort of radical libertarian document for which this would be a sensible defense, as the authors do accept some government commitments. They ask that tax cuts be linked to judgments about revenue needs, which they don’t simply dismiss.
It therefore makes more sense to think of the document as another kind of effort. Rather than a strategic plan for conservative governance, it is a simple and effective statement of a general political orientation. As a piece of popular political theorizing, it operates via stark oppositions.
• Reduce taxes rather than maintain or increase them.
• Reduce government spending rather than maintain or increase it.
• Reduce government action rather than expanding it.
• Repeal rather than reform the new health care set-up.
• Simplify decision-making in Congress to enhance public access and understanding.
These pledges work as political interventions because they effectively link three levels of analysis and argument. At the most general level, the first three points affirm principles with very broad public support. (The fourth, as we’ll see, is more complicated.) The fifth point, while vague, speaks to strong public distrust of Congress.
At a more immediate level of ongoing political and economic developments, the first three points target evident problems of Democratic governance. The Obama administration, before its midterm defeats, was clearly aiming at tax increases (meaning, not extending prior tax cuts). It was aiming at another stimulus package based on government spending—though the results of the first one had been mixed. The administration envisaged new government efforts to address a surprisingly high level of unemployment, without a credible account of why unemployment was in fact so robust.
In other words, “A Pledge to America” did a decent job—and still does a decent job—of linking conservative political commitments with immediate issues.
A third dimension of the document is to put pressure on weaknesses of the opponents it targets. Regarding taxes, spending, and the scope of government action, Democrats and the broad Left have clear enough inclinations but trouble defending or developing them in an attractive way. The Republican claims in “A Pledge to America”—and those of the Tea Party factions—highlight longstanding Democratic problems. Democratic leaders and intellectuals routinely have trouble making persuasive positive claims about appropriate levels of taxes, spending, and government action. Instead they tend to reiterate their rejection of extreme Republican positions, implying that since these are foolish, no one should worry too much about limits to, say, the size of the deficit.
In a country suffused with anti-statist political and cultural elements, this is not much of a strategy for a Democratic administration that has so far failed to reduce unemployment and spur growth. Given the flourishing of libertarian themes in and around the Republican Right, it is and will continue to be tempting to target these extreme positions rather than develop new conceptions of how taxes, spending, and government action should be connected. In public debate, this kind of anti-Republican move looks way too much like, “since Tea Party candidate X is clearly a nut, we can do what we want.”
THE FOURTH area of Republican advocacy, the call to dismantle the new health care framework, raises a big problem for reform efforts in general. Most ambitious reform efforts now take the form of regulatory politics, in which existing forms of managing a large complex of policies and problems are reshaped and replaced. Reform will usually not look like pure and simple redistribution (such as instituting unemployment insurance). This was certainly the case with health care reform. The great majority of people in the United States—probably over 80 percent—had some kind of predictable access to health care before 2009. For most people the large changes in how health care is organized and provided may mean real gains over time, but this result is not yet clear.
The typical problem with big reform efforts is that large and complex regulatory changes may not produce an immediate and steady flow of gains. If such improvements aren’t generated over time, then it is arguable that the reform should not have been made. From the perspective of reformers in this context, any immediate judgment of results is apt to be unfair—but, of course, politics is largely about the present. The anticipated benefits of big changes may arrive in complex and uneven ways before cumulating in a clearly preferable new arrangement.
Who decides on the appropriate time frame? Proponents of reforms are normally obliged to counsel patience, which is often legitimate. Opponents typically face a strategic choice between trying to sabotage implementation and, if they truly believe it to be the case, awaiting the evidence that the reform has failed. If Republicans were as sure as they claim to be about the massive costs and disadvantages of the new health care framework, patience might make sense and would pay off fairly soon. Republicans could then tolerate (thought not support) a reasonable implementation of the new framework, presuming its wretched defects would be revealed soon.
The victorious Republicans are in no mood to be patient. They have embraced a wrecking strategy that is unlikely to produce repeal but apt to generate a great deal of uncertainty about what kind of health care reform can work.
Political statements and arguments matter. Given that reality, “A Pledge to America” may well have contributed to the most recent Republican victories, beyond the dismal economy and the routine decline in the electoral strength of the president’s party. It set out core Republican themes in a clear and fairly strong way and helped bridge gaps among Republican constituencies. The political shift was substantial but not seismic—it did not involve mass conversions to the most conservative positions on offer. The Republican Right and the Tea Party mainly mobilized prior supporters, but given still low voting rates and lots of slack in the political system, a notable mobilization of likely supporters is a big political advance. At the same time, it appears that many independents voted Republican without falling in love with the GOP. Mobilizing supporters and attracting independents—that is what moving right looks like in the United States. As is usual with such shifts, the political meaning of the Republican victories in 2010 remains to be determined, but in politics it is most often better to win than not.
David Plotke is Professor of Politics at the New School for Social Research.