Jonathan Cohn

That Old 2007 Feeling

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One intriguing thing about the Republican Party's "Pledge to America" is that it doesn't include that many goodies for the Tea Partyor, more precisely, that it concedes far more to the Tea Party in terms of rhetoric than actual policy.

Here's the breakdown: The preamble and foreword are dominated by dog whistles and direct appeals aimed at the Tea Party movement. It contains all sorts of grave, don’t-tread-on-me rumbling about the unprecedented emergency facing the country, the arrogance of Washington Democrat elitists, and the righteous indignation of the people, as expressed “in town halls and on public squares.” There’s a big shout-out to constitutional originalism, and particularly to the Tenth Amendment, which many Tea Partiers rely on when they claim that states have the right to nullify expansions of federal power. In general, the language suggests that the Obama administration is not simply wrong, but lacks legitimacy.

The rhetoric also bows to the religious rightwhich overlaps heavily with the Tea Party Movementwith references to “protecting life” and “traditional families.” It also includes a finely tuned dog whistle that places the Declaration of Independence, with its references to the Creator and to natural rights, on a par with the Constitution as a founding document.

But when it comes to specifics, the Pledge limits its wrath to reversal of the Obama administration's policies. By vowing to repeal TARP, the authors promise to carry their counterrevolution all the way back to September of 2008, but that’s it. There’s nothing about repealing No Child Left Behind or the Medicare prescription drug benefit, both of which have been routinely denounced by Republican congressional candidates this year. And the document doesn’t contain any proposals touching on the broader Tea Party agenda of revoking “unconstitutional” policies and practices dating back to the New Deal. Even though most Tea Party–affiliated GOP candidates have embraced a phase-out of Social Security and Medicare, or other radical changes to our welfare system, all the Pledge contains is vague language about “accountability” in these programs. It doesn’t even tout Paul Ryan’s Medicare voucher proposal, and its one real reference to Medicare attacks the alleged benefit cuts contained in the health reform legislation. In other words, the White House is right to accuse Republicans of simply wanting to “take America back to the same failed economic policies that caused this recession”but they haven't gone back any further than that. That’s how thoroughly the House GOP has eschewed the more radical stance of the conservative movement and its Tea Party base.

Given all the dodges on spending, not to mention the document’s monomania about making Bush tax cuts permanent, it’s perhaps not surprising that it fails to promise a balanced federal budget, or even the hoary symbolic demand for a balanced budget constitutional amendment. (Which the Contract With America did contain in 1994.) As Jonathan Chait and Ezra Klein quickly pointed out, the Pledge is about as good a recipe as can be devised for actually increasing deficits and debt, not to mention perpetuating a weak and inequality-ridden economy.

The reaction to this document from the conservative commentariat has been mixed, but generally negative. The editors of National Review rather defensively called the Pledge an improvement on the Contract With America because it promised actions rather than just votes on the House floor. More typical was the reaction of RedState blogger Erick Erickson:

The entirety of this Promise is laughable. Why? It is an illusion that fixates on stuff the GOP already should be doing while not daring to touch on stuff that will have any meaningful longterm effects on the size and scope of the federal government.

This document proves the GOP is more focused on the acquisition of power than the advocacy of long term sound public policy.

This is a stark illustration of the divide between professional Republican politicians and Tea Party movement activists. It can't bode well for Republican unity that the House started out by identifying with the spirit of 1776, but clearly prefers the spirit of 2007.

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