From 'party of no' to 'party of stop'?

By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 24, 2010; A1

The GOP has long chafed under criticism from President Obama and the Democrats that it is "the party of no." What its new campaign blueprint shows is that if it takes control of the House, it will become "the party of stop."

At its heart, the Republicans' "Pledge to America" represents a promise to stop Obama in his tracks - stop the economic stimulus, stop the financial bailout program, repeal and (try to) replace the health-care law, stop other spending and stop the elimination of tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans.

GOP leaders hope their proposal will show voters that they have plenty of ideas. Like the "Contract With America" that Republicans issued 16 years ago under their House speaker, Newt Gingrich (Ga.), the Pledge is designed not only to give candidates concrete proposals to include in campaign ads this fall but also to help the party hit the ground running if Republicans win the House.

Although the new blueprint exists in part because of the 1994 Contract, its announcement highlighted the anti-Washington political mood. Sixteen years ago, Gingrich assembled GOP House incumbents and challengers, in suits and ties, on the steps of the Capitol to present the Contract to the country. On Thursday, House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (Ohio) and other GOP leaders, in shirt sleeves and open collars, traveled 40 miles outside Washington to a hardware store to avoid any association with the Capitol.

The Pledge is a political document in the guise of a governing agenda. If the blueprint for conservative government contains any real surprises, they come in the form of pulled punches rather than new initiatives.

The document is filled with rhetorical flourishes that echo that language heard for the past year or more from tea party activists nationwide. Its opening paragraphs bow to the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution and describe Washington, D.C., much the way colonists once described King George III.

Washington is portrayed as arrogant and out of touch, ruled by "self-appointed elites" who are willfully ignoring the people's interests. Consider this statement on the opening page of the Pledge: "In a self-governing society, the only bulwark against the power of the state is the consent of the governed, and regarding the policies of the current government, the governed do not consent."

That sets up the contrast Republicans have been trying to draw for November, a grievance election that capitalizes on Americans' anger and frustration about the lack of more significant progress in turning around the economy and the backlash on the right against the government's growth under Obama.

The overall thrust of the Pledge is a call for smaller and more limited government, but within limits. Republicans have embraced many of the easy proposals - easy in the sense that they are broadly popular within their coalition. They include extending all of President George W. Bush's tax cuts and overturning Obama's health-care law.

But a paragraph halfway through the Pledge sums up the limits of the Republicans' willingness to wade into controversial territory. Under the innocuous title of "Reforming the budget process to focus on long-term challenges," Republicans say this:

"We will make the decisions that are necessary to protect our entitlement programs for today's seniors and future generations. That means requiring a full accounting of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, setting benchmarks for these programs and reviewing them regularly and preventing the expansion of unfunded liabilities."

That language neatly skirts one of the toughest challenges facing both parties in the years ahead: tackling the ever-growing cost of entitlement programs. That issue may come quickly to the fore when the president's debt and deficit commission issues its recommendations at the end of the year. Boehner offered no more details to reporters on the scene.

Identifying the scope of the long-term financial liability is one thing. Offering solutions - whether through raising the Social Security retirement age, changing the cost-of-living formula, offering personal or private accounts or other measures to put the system into long-term balance - is another. Faced with an opportunity to offer voters a clearer indication of how they would tackle entitlements, Republicans flinched.

Rep. Paul Ryan (Wis.) told CNN on Thursday that the drafters of the Pledge acted with the knowledge that, at most, they would have power next year only within a divided government. What they are offering, he said, are proposals they think they could deliver.

There are other gaps in the document. Republicans pledged to roll back most government spending to the levels that existed before the economic collapse. After that they promise to establish "hard caps" on new discretionary spending. Going back to 2008 levels, they said, would save $1 trillion over 10 years. But extending the tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans would eat up most of those savings, an estimated $700 billion.

On defense and national security, the Republicans offered robust support for defending the country and called for more spending to do so. They did not acknowledge the unfolding debate about cutting the Pentagon budget. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates has outlined cuts estimated at $100 billion over five years.

The Pledge sets no specific targets for reducing or eliminating the deficit, promising only "a responsible, fact-based conversation with the American people about the scale of the fiscal challenges we face and the urgent action that is required to deal with them."

Boehner has used that language repeatedly this year. Is it a cover for a set of policies Republicans know they want to enact or a concern that the calls by tea party activists to dramatically shrink government are more than a broader swath of the public will accept?

The White House and Democratic leaders predictably denounced the blueprint as a return to failed policies. The reaction among conservatives was more illustrative of the challenges GOP leaders face.

The editors at National Review Online enthusiastically embraced the Pledge, arguing that the document is bolder than the "Contract With America." The Contract, they said, merely promised votes on bills long suppressed by Democrats. "The pledge," they argued, "commits Republicans to working toward a broad conservative agenda that, if implemented, would make the federal government significantly smaller, Congress more accountable and America more prosperous."

Other conservatives were sharply critical. RedState's Erick Erickson called it "dreck . . . a diet full of sugar." He called the detailed document - 21 pages compared with the Contract's 869 words - a series of "compromises and milquetoast rhetorical flourishes in search of unanimity among House Republicans because the House GOP does not have the fortitude to lead boldly in opposition to Barack Obama."

Those dueling assessments underscore the tensions within the Republican coalition - the aspirations of conservative anti-Washington activists to significantly reduce the size of government and the limitations imposed on those who have the responsibility to govern to be judicious in how they wield the ax. If they are able to win the majority in November, Republican leaders once again will be faced with the test of trying to resolve those contradictions.

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