Debunking the 1994 Contract With America Myth

The 1994 Republican Contract With America has been brought up in the blogs and other discussion as a Democratic blueprint for how to retake Congress this year. The problem with this is: it really did NOT work.

The Columbia Journal Review Daily had an article last spring on the sustained myth that CWA was the reason the Repuplicans won Congress that year. Paul McLeary clearly refutes this in Okay, It’s Hard to Get 2006 Right – But 1994?. In case it’s too much trouble to link, I am posting the whole article here.

There is no off-season in political prognostication. This midterm election year — with the president’s approval ratings in freefall and the public telling pollsters that they’re unhappy with the way Congress is doing its job — ought to offer prime pickings for political reporters looking for juicy angles.

In such an environment, the only thing standing between the reading public and what should be a host of great stories is the Washington press corps’ unapologetic tendency to somehow hew to conventional wisdom, no matter how many times that wisdom has been proven wrong.

Case in point is an article in last week’s New Yorker by Jeffrey Goldberg (we’re a little late getting to this one) headlined, “Central Casting,”
that looked at the state of the Democratic party’s attempt to take control of the two houses of Congress for the first time since 1994.

There was nothing particularly newsworthy or remarkable about the piece, but what was noteworthy was the way in which it reinforced one tidbit of conventional wisdom that has repeatedly proven to be mistaken.

Goldberg wrote that while “Democrats have a set of policy prescriptions that they hope to enact if they win majorities in Congress … they are only muddling toward a Gingrich-style Contract With America, which, in its drama and clarity, gave 1994 voters an understanding of national Republican priorities.”

If we were handing out awards for outstanding work in upholding Beltway myths, Goldberg would get a star and a smiley face. But sadly, celebrating mythmaking isn’t why we’re in business.

The truth about the fabled Contract With America is much different than Goldberg’s portrayal; in fact, he is propping up a thoroughly discredited bit of revisionist history. Rather than being the catalyst for the Republican’s 1994 victory, as many reporters have since portrayed it, the Contract with America actually made its debut only six weeks before the 1994 election, which makes its effect on the outcome a debatable proposition.

What isn’t debatable is that, back in the days before the 1994 election, the Contract’s celebrated “drama and clarity” was lost on the majority of Americans. The fact is, according to an article that appeared in the December 1994/January 1995 issue of Campaigns & Elections, “very few voters were even aware of this contract during the election: just 31 percent had heard of the Contract in a late October [1994] NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll.

“Moreover, very few Republican candidates ran television ads promoting their signing of the contract, while scores of Democrats ran commercials attacking their opponents for supporting a proposal that would endanger Social Security and Medicare.”

Similarly, a poll taken by New Jersey’s Star-Ledger in Febraury1995 found that 55 percent of New Jersey residents polled “have not read or heard much about” the Contract. The poll also found that “Among those who voted Republican, 55 percent say that the Contract with America was not a reason why they selected their candidate.”

Granted, the Star-Ledger poll only dealt with one state, but taken together with the NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, it’s clear that a majority of voters had no idea what the Contract With America was. So, despite Goldberg’s contention that it was a deciding factor in the 1994 election (and he’s hardly alone in this), it appears that the reasons why the Republicans won were more complicated than a group of Republican Congressmen taking part in a political stunt.

Another nail in the coffin of the myth of the Contract With America came last April with a piece in the Congressional newspaper The Hill which took a look at the similarities between the upcoming 2006 Congressional midterms and the 1994 election, and found that “Twelve years after the Contract With America and the staggering GOP sweep, architects of the storied manifesto concede it played a more mythical than material role in victory.”

But who wants to revisit the messy political realities of 1994 (corruption in the Democratic Congress, a faltering economy, and a president who had muddled haltingly through his first two years), when we can just tell ourselves that Newt Gingrich and his lieutenants magically captured the attention of the American people through a brave and brash document that led the Republicans into power? Apparently not Goldberg.

Oft-times, political reporters describe covering an election campaign as akin to trying to make sense of things in the swirling fog of war. There’s some merit to that view when it comes to reporting current events. But what happened 12 years ago isn’t foggy to anyone — or at least it shouldn’t be.

The whole point of political strategy is to truly understand what REALLY worked in a past election. Then take the current situation and develop the strategy to reflect what is unique about it.

If the Republicans retook Congress using a plan that didn’t work, just think what the Democrats could do with a good plan that resonates with the voters. 8)

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2 Responses to Debunking the 1994 Contract With America Myth

  1. Nick says:

    Ginny

    Thanks for posting this! Talk about the truth will set you free! Finally someone mentioned the “faltering economy” of 1994. Despite Democrat spin, median household incomes were falling in 1994! (even if poverty rates fell slightly). Still most of the trends that unseated Bush Sr. in 1992, (i.e. rising underemployment, rising rates of underinsured and uninsured, only part-time jobs are the jobs being created, rapid downsizing of blue and white collar jobs, and-most important-falling median household incomes caused Congressional Dems to join Bush Sr. on the unemployment lines. Hopefully that’ll happen to these Republicans this year.

  2. Ginny Cotts says:

    Nick,

    I think there was some reasonable frustration with the Dem hold on Congress- with the associated abuses of being in power a long time- plus a sense that changing the power would balance DC.

    Unfortunately, the GOP had no intention of acting on any of their pledges. The goal was clearly to go into attack mode and stay with it no matter how ludicrous.

    At this point I think we have a new generation of Democratic candidates that are bright, ready to DO good things, and will hopefully resist the temptations of power. Lessons learned from both our fall and theirs.

    Whether the GOP can rebuild remains to be seen. I would really like to see Instant Voter Recount get adopted so we can build some new parties and diffuse the partisanship.
    Maybe.