Today’s email message from the RNC…ostensibly from "Senator Mel Martinez and Mike Duncan" rather than Ken Mehlman…announced the former gentlemen’s election as the new RNC chairmen. The message, in case you missed it (or don’t have the stomach to have Republican broadcast emails delivered to your inbox on a frequent basis) started out:
Mark, last November was a challenging election.
OK, that’s a nice way to put it. Most of us call it an "ass-kicking," as you did in 2000, 2002, and 2004, not to mention 1994. But hey, whatever makes you feel good. Oh wait, you do remember 1994…
In 1994, we stood on principle and won on an agenda worthy of America’s majority party – lower taxes, limited government, and reforming how Washington works. Too often last year, our message wasn’t about our principles. It was about a party that was in the majority, but seemed to have forgotten why.
In the interests of historical accuracy, let’s examine what the 1994 "principles" were, and how well the Republican have stood on them. 1994, if everyone recalls correctly, was the year that the new Congressional majority promised a "Contract with America." Oddly, the Contract sounds pretty applicable to today’s situation, after 12 years of Republican congressional majority and nearly two terms of Republican control of the White House (I was going to use the term "occupation", but that cuts pretty close to the bone, doesn’t it?).
"As Republican Members of the of the House of Representatives and as citizens seeking to join that body we propose not just to change its policies, but even more important, to restore the bonds of trust between the people and their elected representatives.
That is why, in this era of official evasion and posturing, we offer instead a detailed agenda for national renewal, a written commitment with no fine print."
The "Contract with America" continues to promise themes of fiscal responsibility, good governance, and fidelity with the wishes of the American people. I’ll leave to numerous other commentators how few of these promises were ultimately fulfilled. But I can’t resist one little observation: the Contract talked about "strengthening our national defense and maintain our credibility around the world." Hmm….
Of more interest is which traditional Republican and conservative themes are not reflected in today’s GOP rhetoric. You’ll notice that fiscal conservatism is not mentioned in Martinez’s list of 1994 priorities, despite its prominence as agenda item #1 in the 1994 Contract. Long the critical cornerstone of Republican politics, Mr. Martinez feels like it’s just not in the top three anymore, I guess. Indeed, fiscal discipline isn’t even mentioned in Martinez’s email until the second-to-the last paragraph, when he calls on the party faithful to listen to Bush’s State of the Union address tomorrow night.
Whereas "fiscal responsibility" is featured prominently by today’s Democratic leadership. The best example of traditional conservative principles of public finance and stewardship is, in fact, Speaker Pelosi’s first speech of the 110th Congress:
"And the American people told us they expected us to work together for fiscal responsibility, with the highest ethical standards and with civility and bipartisanship.
"After years of historic deficits, this 110th Congress will commit itself to a higher standard: pay as you go, no new deficit spending. Our new America will provide unlimited opportunity for future generations, not burden them with mountains of debt.
It would be tempting to think that the Democrats come out looking good here. But I’m going to draw a more cynical, citizen-oriented lesson instead: both parties will promise whatever they expect will "sell" with the public, and they’re not particularly worried whether we remember those promises down the road. In 1994, the Republicans sold the country on fiscal discipline, and failed massively and spectacularly to deliver it. The Democrats actually did a reasonable job of delivering it at the Federal level in during the 1990’s, though this is likely because of the longest economic expansion in the 20th century rather than deliberate policy. A rapidly growing tax base conceals a multitude of small sins. So we can’t exactly rest on our laurels on this score.
Sadly, a constant, slowly growing, or even declining tax base doesn’t conceal your sins, and reveals much, especially when those sins are large and egregious. To return to Mr. Martinez:
To regain the majority and retain the White House, we cannot just show that we want it more.
We need to prove to the American people that we deserve it more. We need to be proud of our principles, confident that our ideas are best for the nation….
In 651 days, everything is at stake – control of Congress and the Presidency. 2008 could be the year we win everything – or it could be the year we lose everything.
Notice that in paragraph two, Martinez does not say that "we need to be proud of actually delivering what we promise," or anything that sounds remotely like it. Instead, he trumpets principles and ideas, not actions. He tells us we need to proud of the things we cannot measure, and doesn’t mention anything that will be measurable by voters in 2008.
The Democrats gets to show whether their words are something we can count on. The very same rhetoric used by Democrats today was deployed by Republicans in 1994, and in weaker form in later elections. It meant nothing then, as the historical record shows. Does the rhetoric of Democrats mean anything today?
In 651 days, that very proposition is at stake, as Mr. Martinez reminds us. 2008 will be the year that Democrats demonstrate that they can overcome "politics as usual," or it’ll be the year that many of us conclude, if we have not already, that there is no real difference between the major parties except their momentary rhetoric and the political tactics involved in a specific election.
At the moment, my bet is on the Democrats: throughout the 20th century they have, at key moments, risen to the challenge of the Depression, the need to rectify 80 years of shameful Jim Crow evasion of the 14th amendment, and the need to adapt to fiscal discipline in the 1990’s with PAYGO, welfare reform, and the elimination of Reagan/Bush-era deficits. If they rise to the challenge today, it will put the lie to the persistent rhetoric proffered by GOP politicians and a string of increasingly hapless party chairmen, anxious to rewrite their party’s history in order to sell a record of failure to a new generation of voters.