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Special Report

Political Impact

This is a partial transcript of "Special Report With Brit Hume ," Feb. 9, 2005, that has been edited for clarity.

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BRIT HUME, HOST: Eleven years ago, House Republicans stood on the steps of the Capitol to announce what they called their "Contract of America," the Senate proposals they pledged to support and on which they campaigned that year. President Clinton promptly labeled it the "Contract on America," and campaigned hard against it that fall. On Election Day, his party lost 52 seats in the House, nine in the Senate, and control of both chambers of Congress.

But was the contract anything more than an effect campaign tool? One who says it was is our own Major Garrett, who has written a fascinating new books called, "The Enduring Revolution." He joins me now.

Major, welcome. Congratulations on your book. In what sense was the "Contract of America" more than just a good thing to campaign on?

MAJOR GARRETT, AUTHOR, FOX NEWS CORRESPONDENT: In several senses, Brit. First of all, red state-blue state America, which almost all Americans who are politically sophisticated and some who are not, understand pretty clearly is a division to the Democrats and Republicans, first manifested itself not in 2000, but in that 1994 election. When for the first time in 40 years, Republicans were not just an executive branch party, Republicans have been winning presidential elections for a good long while, but they became a legislative majority in Washington.

And that transference of legislative power really began to show, that red state-blue state divide, which George Bush saw in 2000 and saw again in 2004. Here’s a couple of other excellent examples. When the other party begins to copy an agenda established by the opposition party, you know something important has happened.

Let’s go back one year. We’re in Iowa. John Kerry fighting for his political life. He’s driving a very direct economic message to Iowa Democrats in that caucus. What is it? I will not going to repeal the middle class tax cuts. Howard Dean and Richard Gephardt, thought to be his chief rivals, proposed doing precisely that.

Now, let’s ask ourselves, what was and what were the middle class tax cuts. They were two, the child tax credit and the marriage penalty relief. Where do they come from? The "Contract with America."

HUME: What else was in it?

GARRETT: What else in the contract?

HUME: Quickly. The Constitution.

GARRETT: Two constitutional amendments to balance the budget and to provide for term limits. Both those failed. The constitutional amendments are difficult.

HUME: But did those guys, though — those people who were elected that year, they all supported it?

GARRETT: Oh, yes. The "Contract with America" (search) was 10 proposals House Republicans said they would bring to the floor in the first 100 days. By that measure, a complete success because they brought every measure to the floor.

HUME: Not all passed, though.

GARRETT: Not all passed, but about 60 percent to 70 percent now are federal law, which is something most people don’t appreciate. It took quite a while.

HUME: Further examples.

GARRETT: Welfare reform, increasing Defense spending, dealing with crime control, as a matter of longer prison sentences and tougher — and more federal funds for prisons, as opposed to gun control. There’s been a complete shift on that issue. Washington here before had thought of crime control almost entirely as a gun control matter, at least from the federal level. That shifted dramatically.

So on a whole host of issues, the contract established a new paradigm for discussing issues in Washington. One the Republicans have held control over for 10 years and that allows George Bush to be much more ambitious than, for example, his father was.

HUME: Give us an example of that.

GARRETT: Well, whatever his ambitions were on tax cuts or budgets, George Herbert Walker Bush had to first decide on how receptive a Democratic Congress would be. So he was beginning to moderate his positions from the very start.

George W. Bush has Republican majorities in the House and in the Senate, which gives him much greater leeway, much greater ability to play not small ball, as he says. But to aim very high because he has Republican majorities, which at least theoretically will be receptive to his plans. That was certainly the case in his first term.

HUME: How faithful have the Republicans in Congress, and particularly in the House, been to the "Contract with America?" I mean I can recall, for example, that one of the tenants of that, I believe that was term limits.

GARRETT: Yes, indeed.

HUME: And a lot of those people were elected, promising to only stick around Congress for a certain period of time. Some got out. A lot didn’t.

GARRETT: About 12 have not. Twelve have reneged on that. And that’s usually cited as example, on how the "Contract with America" failed. But that class was over 70 members. So 12 out of 70. That’s not a bad ratio.

Many good, high quality members left after three terms. They said look, we came to be citizen legislators. We left. Tom Coburn is an example of that. He was in the House for six year, quit, went back to Oklahoma. After four year, ran for the Senate, was just re-elected. So he’s a revolutionary. Kept his promise, went back home and then came back.

HUME: So he limited his term in the House after three terms and now he’s back in the Senate.

GARRETT: Now, he came back to the Senate after going home, and saying I’ve proven myself as a citizen legislator.

HUME: So he’s kind of technically got in, right?

GARRETT: Yes, indeed.

HUME: Well, so give me some other — another sense of how this contract has — I mean it is the — the strike thing to me, Major, about the book, it was such a revelation to me in reading it was that I had covered that period. In fact, I was covering the Clinton White House. I remember when he called it the "Contract on America." He viewed it derisively. The members of the media viewed it dismissively. They were later to acknowledge that it was an effective campaign document. But they didn’t really think that — and you never hear much talk about it today?

GARRETT: No, but here’s the important thing to think about the "Contract with America." It’s still the measuring stick for Republican fealty to their own principles. Think about that. A political document that is a measuring stick for party for 10 full years. I can’t think of another one like that in my political career.

The other thing to remember about the contract is it lived a much more important life after the polls closed better than it did before the polls opened. Effective as a political document it was, it’s much more effective at creating an agenda for House Republicans that brought the Senate Republicans eventually into line. Changed the direction of the Clinton administration and laid the ideological predicate for George W. Bush’s administration.

You can’t say that about the Congress in American history. That from one Congress, the 104th, you change the direction of a sitting presidency and set the course for the next presidency. That to me seems striking from an historical point of view.

HUME: Now, progenitor of it, or at least the leading figure most associated with that was the man who became the speaker of the House after that, Newt Gingrich.

GARRETT: Right.

HUME: And yet he ended up leaving Congress all together? What about that? Is the contract simply not a factor in what happened to him? Or is it?

GARRETT: Well, the contract was a huge factor in propelling Newt Gingrich to the speakership. But as Newt Gringrich would tell you, he’s a much better visionary than he is as a legislative tactician. The thing to think about Newt Gingrich and Dick Army and Bill Pax, and many others who were vital to the contract’s success in 1994, is that they have all left.

What I think that indicates is that this was not a personality-driven agenda or a personality-driven party. It’s a party of ideas. Ideas that were started in 1994 and have lived a pretty healthy political life thereafter. Which also strikes me as something worth pointing out.

HUME: One thing that was noted at the time and you can just tell me, these were poll-tested ideas. The Republicans knew they were popular, right?

GARRETT: They knew they were popular. They knew they were popular not even with the Republicans but the parole vote, 17 percent from 1992, which was up for grabs. And many Democrats say in the book that if bill Clinton had worked harder to get that parole vote in ‘94, it wouldn’t have happened the way it did.

HUME: Major Garrett, fascinating book. Congratulations.

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