The Contract With America

At first glance, the Contract With America is a pretty bland document. By contrast to the Republican platform in the 1992 elections, the right-wing, fundamentalist, moral majority absolutism is lacking. The Republicans have learned a lesson from their drubbing in the 1992 election.

The question is, have they learned to think differently, or only to speak differently?

It is hard to attack any individual proposition in the Contract With America. Very few of us, hard core economists aside, will argue with tax cuts. No-one will argue against decreasing the deficit. (Of course, simultaneous promises to cut taxes and decrease the deficit are cause for suspicion.) Anyone against personal responsibility? You may not agree with orphanages for welfare children, but only here does the Moral Majority agenda peep out.

Think for a moment about the title of the document: The Contract With America. It is a book-length statement of Republican ideas, the brainchild of Newt Gingrich, and endorsed by scores of Republican candidates in November, many of whom are now Congresspeople. Calling it a contract was brilliant: President Clinton, the enemy, the other (actually, he is mentioned more with pity than with malice in the document) is perceived by the public as untrustworthy, unfaithful, a breaker of compacts and promises.

But a contract is a document agreed to by both parties, and a good contract unambiguously sketches out the four corners of the deal it describes, leaving nothing significant unsaid. These two issues, consent and completeness, overlap each other, for consent is undermined when a contract is ambiguous: there may have been no real meeting of the minds.

By voting for so many candidates who endorsed the Contract With America, the electorate may have consented to such terms as are elucidated there. But if you scrutinize the document carefully, you realize how much is missing. There is a chapter on fighting crime which endorses stronger sentences, making certain crimes federal, and toughening the criminal system's treatment of illegal immigrants. Nothing is said anywhere about gun control. Where do the Contract Republicans stand on gun control? Almost certainly with Mr. Gingrich, who voted against the seven day waiting period for gun purchases established by the Brady bill.

The Contract says nothing about prayer in the schools--but Mr. Gingrich has announed that it is a major part of his agenda to pass a Constitutional amendment reintroducing school prayer.

The Contract With America is incensed by the concept of teenage mothers having children to earn welfare benefits which pay twenty or thirty percent more than they would earn if working at minimum wage. In the Contract Republicans' ideal America, would pregnant teenagers be able to get abortions? The Contract With America says nothing whatever about abortion, so lets look at Mr. Gingrich's record again: he voted against a bill permitting reproductive health services, including abortion, to be offered to members of the military and their dependents abroad.

The Contract With America has a chapter on supporting families (the dangerous words "family values", so evocative of the 1992 campaign, are not used). A few tax breaks are given, for adoption and tuition, and that's about it. Mr. Gingrich voted against the Family Leave Act that allows 12 weeks unpaid leave around the birth of a child or the illness of a family member.

Two years ago, the Clinton administration identified health care as being the most major issue in American politics. A complicated plan, weakly presented, failed. Now, according to the Contract, the fact that millions of Americans have no health insurance was never really worthy of attention:

We don't need a government-run health care system with costly new entitlement programs. Instead, we need to facilitate efforts to keep families intact.
And that is the only mention of health care in the Contract With America.

Franklin Roosevelt said that every society must be judged by how it helps its poorest members. Where is the compassion in the Contract With America? One does not find it in Mr. Gingrich's make-up (he has been his party's attack dog, quite successfully, for many years). Nor can one find it in the Contract. The chapter that seems most likely, from its title, to contain compassionate ideas is "Strengthen Families and Protect Our Kids." Here is a summary of the ideas presented in that section:

  1. A minor cannot participate in any federally funded survey or analysis without parental consent. What a relief; we may have to infer where the Contract Republicans stand on abortion, gun control and school prayer--but at least we know where they stand on intrusive federal surveying.
  2. Better enforcement of interstate child support orders. No argument here--this is a good one.
  3. Five thousand dollar tax credit for families who adopt. The credit is phased out in steps starting at $60,000 annual income.
  4. A five hundred dollar tax credit for families caring for a dependent elderly parent or grandparent at home. With the five hundred they save, families can purchase one month of health insurance (it probably won't cover the grandparent, though.)
  5. Stronger penalties for distribution of child pornography via computer--certainly a problem threatening to sap the foundations of our society. People without health insurance will certainly feel much better to know that those computer pornographers are behind bars.
And that's it for family protection in the Contract With America (there are a few more tax provisions in a separate chapter, such as a $500 per child tax credit). It doesn't add up to a program. It sounds more like a grab-bag, like the spin doctors sat around a table and said, "We need something more about families to offset the welfare cuts."

The sight of a gloating Mr. Gingrich and other right-wing Republicans declaring a mandate to lead the country to the right was very unsettling. The Contract With America is a centrist document. As such, it is likely a fraud. By voting for the Contract Republicans, the voters did not vote for any terms not in the contract. But it seems likely that the most important part of the Republican agenda was not expressed there.