WASHINGTON — It's five days until zero hour for the House Republican "contract with America." But if the Guinness Book of Records has a category for anti-climax, the letdown of April 7--when Congress adjourns--could be a contender. Right now, House Speaker Newt Gingrich's job ratings and the prospects for the contract's enactment are both losing air like pricked balloons.
Three conclusions are beginning to take hold: First, 30% to 40% of the contract will never reach the President's desk and much of the rest will be watered down--by Senate Republicans, as well as by White House veto; second, it's time for politicians and journalists alike to stop using Franklin D. Roosevelt's famous First Hundred Days of 1933 as a relevant yardstick, and third, Gingrich has about as much chance of wiping away Roosevelt's legacy as a prairie dog does of re-sculpting Mt. Rushmore.
Thousands of trees have died to provide newsprint for how the "contract with America" was a useful 10-point campaign manifesto but never should have been made the be-all and end-all of GOP success. True enough. But the deeper problem is Gingrich--the ex-history professor who's misread history.
We don't need to study the Depression to know that Roosevelt, in 1933, had a huge mandate and a lopsided Congress of his own party. The reason that Congress accepted half-baked, cross-your-fingers legislation was simple: a national economic emergency.
The United States of the 1990s, by contrast, faces major problems without a specific, energizing national crisis--and one problem is second-rate political leadership. The unhappy choice in 1988, between Michael S. Dukakis and George Bush, led to Bill Clinton's election in 1992, to get rid of Bush; and then to Gingrich and a House GOP majority two years later, when voters wanted to curb Clinton. Affirmative mandates are few and far between.
Unfortunately, the "contract with America" rests on essentially the same premise as Reaganomics 15 years ago: Morning will come again in America if we go back to the principles that made this country great. Now, as then, this involves cutting taxes and pretending it's 1926, or 1955, while praising traditional morality and insisting we can go back to McGuffey's Readers and morning prayers. The reason voters are willing to listen again is that Gingrich, like Ronald Reagan, is playing off another recurrent weakness--a second-rate Democratic President.
But there is a critical difference between the first Morning Again, run by an actor (Reagan), and Morning Again II, run by a second-string history professor (Gingrich). The actor, a national father figure, was partly content with reading the script and being liked; the history professor, an obstreperous brother-in-law figure, wants to rewrite history. His burbling about taking a leaf from the Duke of Wellington's peninsular campaign or following the late 18th-Century fiscal prescriptions of Pitt the Younger are just pseudo-intellectual puffery. What Gingrich really wants to become is what Reagan never tried to be: the genuine anti-Roosevelt, the man who rolls back history and destroys the so-called New Deal Welfare State.
That makes him more ideologue than serious historian. The American people merely want to trim the welfare state, not destroy it. Better historians, such as the authoritative Arnold Toynbee, had an appropriate description for the sort of renewal-cum-rollback advocated by politicians who insist, against the evidence, that great powers can re-create the triumphs of their early days. "Shadow empires," Toynbee called them.
Toynbee's shadows certainly haunt the GOP contract. About one-third is sound reform--overhauling congressional procedures, obliging Congress to follow the same laws as the rest of the country and blocking Washington from imposing mandated outlays on state governments. Another quarter is routine political falsity--tax cuts that won't happen and term limits that leaders in both parties really don't want. But the contract is nearly half "shadow empire" stuff--phony constitutional amendments and accounting gimmicks to go back to the mid-century days of a balanced national budget; tort reform that takes corporations back to the protective 1920s; welfare revision to let the poor slip toward late 19th-Century circumstances so they can try to re-enact Horatio Alger, and go-it-alone foreign policy so the United States can relive its happy days of splendid isolation.
Most of this won't work, and some verges on caricature. Gingrich talks about recapturing Victorian character--including the 10-year-old Lancashire factory workers?--and in a burst of Orwell-speak, the House has renamed the old Education and Labor Committee, which just led the charge to take welfare away from children and to junk federal college loans, as the House Committee on Educational and Economic Opportunity.