Conservatives, libertarians and other skeptics of big government across America have every reason to be suspicious that Beltway Republicans have yet to come to Jesus. Unfortunately, the 8,000-word "Pledge to America" released yesterday does little to allay those concerns. Notwithstanding many appealing passages and a sharp homage to the Constitution, the document’s origin and effect leave much to be desired.
Despite the departure from positions of power of many of the architects of the 1999-2006 GOP spending binge, where many Beltway Republicans themselves became tools of big government, well-warranted suspicions remain. George W. Bush and Karl Rove, who somehow planned to create a permanent Republican majority through massive spending increases and new entitlements, no longer occupy the West Wing. Tom DeLay, who declared in 2005 that Republicans had achieved an “ongoing victory” over spending and that there was nothing left to cut from the federal budget, no longer serves as the second-ranked leader of the House GOP.
But it is a fair question whether the GOP establishment in Washington really understands and shares the anti-government sentiment swelling across America, or whether it sees it as a convenient ticket back to the A-list of Washington life and power.
As with so many events of the past weeks, the advent of the Pledge is unlikely to put skeptics at ease.
First of all, amid a genuine grassroots political wellspring in America, why did the GOP pen a manifesto from the heart of the Beltway establishment? This feels a lot more like an effort to capture, stroke and manage the Tea Party than an effort to effect real reform in the GOP and position it for the years ahead.
Notably, the Pledge does not condemn or even mention earmarks, which is a feature of big government spending that Americans find particularly loathsome. Can this omission be by accident? Or do Beltway Republicans view them as essential, voters be damned?
The Pledge omits talk of serious entitlement reform. There are reports that the member of the GOP House leadership who is most serious about this issue, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wisconsin), was essentially kept out of the Pledge’s construction. If we cannot talk about entitlement reform in the current political atmosphere, when can we ever? And if reform ideas aren’t presented to the electorate, how can they ever be enacted?
The Pledge omits talk of serious tax reform. A complicated tax code is something that Americans of all political stripes loath. It is the mechanism by which Congress micromanages the economy and increasingly picks winners and losers from Washington. The Pledge has highly specific language about things like holding weekly votes on spending and health savings accounts, for example. Why did it miss key parts of the big picture?
Put plainly, the document looks more like a mediocre attempt at a catch-all written by political consultants in Washington.
Incidentally, the vast majority of Americans will not read the document. It is not unreasonable to expect American voters to devote considerable time to informing themselves about the way their country is run and the actions of each party. But it is unrealistic to believe that even a sizable minority will read the Pledge. This is not because they are lazy. Rather, they know there is a big difference between what politicians and parties say and what they do. For the same reason no one reads party platforms anymore, few will really dig into the Pledge.
And that brings us to what the Pledge is not. It is not the Contract With America. The Contract was a concise 10-point program that was guided by Newt Gingrich, but which neatly distilled the key ideas impelling grassroots voters and candidates who were challenging the establishment in 1994. It may not have been necessary to repeat the Contract, and each election is different, but there should be no question as to which is the superior political tool. Furthermore, the Contract led naturally to a legislative program after the election. Republicans fulfilled their promises and were seen fulfilling their promises. The Pledge is too sloppy to facilitate this.
Luckily, the lapses of the Pledge are unlikely to harm anti-establishment candidates for office this year. It just won’t do them much good. The story of 2010 is one of a grassroots movement alien to the establishments of both political parties finally saying “Enough!” to Washington. We won’t begin to know its true size or effect until November 2, and that will only be the beginning.
For now, all we can say with reasonable certainty is that Washington does not understand. This is true not only of Washington’s broad political class, but also of many of its GOP precincts. Hopefully the coming wave will bring with it men and women who intend to be leaders from the outset, not just foot soldiers.
Christian Whiton is a former State Department senior adviser. He is a frequent contributor to Fox News Opinion.