The GOP's Ante

On the political-gimmickry scale, the GOP's new "Pledge to America" is worse than some, better than others.

Let's say it falls somewhere between the Federalist Papers and a Harry Reid press release--which, admittedly, pins it down as much as saying you lost a cufflink somewhere between Burkina Faso and Cleveland.

First and foremost it promises to focus on job creation, vowing to stop all scheduled tax hikes (i.e., the expiration of the Bush tax cuts). It offers a steep tax deduction for small businesses and a renewed commitment to curbing business-stifling regulations.

The Pledge also stands athwart the Obama agenda, promising to "repeal and replace the government takeover of health care," cancel the unspent portion of the stimulus, and drive a stake through the heart of TARP. The Republicans also promise to "roll back government spending to pre-stimulus, pre-bailout levels" and disentangle the government from Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

That's hardly all of the substance, but the politics are more interesting. Naturally, Democrats attacked the Pledge before they read it as a mean-spirited, irresponsible return to the boneheaded and miserly policies of the Bush years. House majority whip Jim Clyburn insisted it would "visit a plague on Americans."

It's true that running on something rather than on nothing might cost the GOP some campaign victories, but running on nothing would deny them even more policy victories.

Compared to what many Democrats said about the Contract with America, this is a ringing endorsement. Rep. Charlie Rangel said of the 1994 Republican platform: "Hitler wasn't even talking about doing these things." And though that is technically true--Hitler wasn't talking about term limits for committee chairs or demanding an independent audit of Congress's budget--the insinuation was a good deal more sinister. Indeed, Rep. Major Owens said that the '94 Republicans were hell-bent on "genocide." Meanwhile, Clyburn's biblical-sounding Republican "plague" might invite worries about locusts or, at worst, the killing of the first-born male child in every household.

On the right, reactions were mostly positive, with a healthy mix of skepticism. "I love it," wrote blogger Michelle Malkin, "provided the words jump off the paper and into reality at some point soon." Erick Erickson of the conservative website RedState stood out for his rage against the whole thing, calling it a "series of compromises and milquetoast rhetorical flourishes in search of unanimity among House Republicans because [they do] not have the fortitude to lead boldly in opposition to Barack Obama."

Meanwhile, others, like Charles Krauthammer, argued that the substance was fine, but it was politically dumb to offer any substance at all. The Democrats are self-destructing like a tape-recording in Mission: Impossible. Why get in the way?

My take: They're all right.

Malkin is absolutely correct that the GOP must prove it is born again on fiscal responsibility. If the Republicans don't prove it, then the tea party will swoop in like the Shadow Host of Dunharrow in The Lord of the Rings and mow down the Republicans like so many dimwitted orcs.

Krauthammer, I think, is uncharacteristically shortsighted. Politicians not only need mandates, they need to understand what their mandates are. Otherwise they tend to think they were elected for their sheer personal awesomeness. President Obama, somewhat understandably, thought he had a messianic mandate to push a hard partisan agenda from the left. In reality, voters thought his mandate was to be "not Bush" and to then govern from the center. He fulfilled the first part and ignored the second entirely.

It's true that running on something rather than on nothing might cost the GOP some campaign victories, but running on nothing would deny them even more policy victories. Sending Republicans back into power without a clear mission is like sending teenagers to Vegas for a school trip without a chaperone. Sure, they'll check out the museums.

As for the argument that the Pledge doesn't go far enough, that's obviously true. But it's also true that the Pledge is far, far more ambitious than the Contract with America was.

Moreover, the fact that it garners support from across the GOP caucus is a good sign, not a bad one, not least because it shows that the GOP can reach out to both the tea parties and independents. Obama and Pelosi's alienation of independents is destroying the Democratic party right now. Why should the GOP emulate that strategy?

Conservatives shouldn't look at the Pledge as the sum total of the Republican agenda. They should see it as the opening bid.

Jonah Goldberg is a visiting fellow at AEI.

Photo Credit: iStockphoto/Anant Dummai

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