Is the 'Pledge to America' a worthy successor to the 'Contract With America'?

By Frank I. Luntz
Sunday, September 26, 2010

The men and women were so angry that they were actually spitting on me as they barked out their complaints -- "sickening government spending" and "lobbyist legislation" and "repulsive corruption" and the "whole stinking mess." At one point, I wondered whether one guy was going to take a swing at me.

I had come to Denver that Saturday in early September to talk to 31 undecided voters, hoping to figure out exactly what Republicans needed to say and do to win the support of the Angry American. I tried everything -- "promises," "pledges," "platforms," "agendas" -- but nothing worked. These people were mad as hell, and I almost gave up. "Okay, you've told me clearly what you don't want," I said in my last attempt. "Now please tell me, in your own words, exactly what you do want."

The dam broke. "I want specifics" . . . "Make them write it down on paper" . . . "They have to sign it" . . . "Make it a real contract. Make it enforceable." As quickly as their tempers had risen, the thought of a policy manifesto listing specific legislative proposals, with a genuine commitment to get it all done, soothed their scorned souls.

This was in 1994, and the anti-Washington language so common today was just as virulent then. For months, the Clinton White House had labeled Newt Gingrich and his House GOP colleagues as the party of "no," and Democrats were claiming that voters could see how extreme the Republican Party really was. (Sound familiar?) Yet, under Gingrich's tutelage, House Republicans offered voters 10 specific proposals to prove that they were unlike the politicians the public so reviled.

I didn't write the "Contract With America." I didn't even name it. But I was the pollster who "messaged" it, testing how voters responded to the language. And I have always been proud of how that document contributed to the Republican landslide in 1994 and how it served as an organizing plan for congressional Republicans in 1995.

This past Thursday, House Republicans unveiled their own "Pledge to America," which, according to GOP House Whip Eric Cantor, is meant to "change the culture of Washington, returning power, control and money back to the people where it belongs." I wasn't involved with this document, but I have moderated almost 50 instant-response focus groups with thousands of voters this year, and I do have a good idea of what they really want.

So, how does the Pledge stack up against the Contract -- and might it lead to similar success? Let's break them down, point by point.

First, their names: "A Pledge to America" vs. the "Contract With America." I have to give the edge to the 1994 version, though I have an even better word. Nobody trusts political promises or politicians' pledges, but a "commitment" suggests seriousness and a willingness to put your reputation on the line. I conducted polls on this wording this year, and an overwhelming 81 percent of Americans preferred a "commitment," while just 10 percent chose a "promise" and only 9 percent a "pledge."

The American people in 2010, above all else, want politicians to demonstrate that Washington works for America, not the other way around. The full-page, double-sided, tear-out ad for the Contract With America that ran in TV Guide in October 1994 did just that, featuring two simple but powerful sentences: "A campaign promise is one thing. A signed contract is quite another." The authors of the 2010 document could have done better than "pledge."

Second, let's look at the documents' bipartisan appeal. The words "Clinton" and "Democrat" were missing from the 1994 Contract and the TV Guide ad for a reason. Late at night on Sept. 25, 1994, I sat at a computer at the Republican National Committee and removed the draft Contract's four remaining references to Clinton and the Democrats because voters were crying out for a nonpartisan approach to governing.

The 2010 Pledge is more overtly critical of the Democrats in Congress and the White House, but more important, it is considerably more anti-government in its language. Calling Washington a "red tape factory" conjures a compelling visual, and suggesting that the priorities of the people "have been ignored, even mocked by the powers-that-be in Washington" is just the sort of red-meat rhetoric that fires up the grass roots. But the most passionate descriptor in the document, "an arrogant and out-of-touch government of self-appointed elites," hits exactly what independents think. Independents determine who wins elections, so on that score, the Pledge beats the Contract.

Third, the opening lines. Here, the Pledge wins hands down. "America is more than a country" is a simple but profound statement that says so much in just a few words. By comparison, the Contract began with language that sounded like it was spoken by Sir Laurence Olivier in some film about Shakespeare: "As Republican Members 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." Any sentence that has more than 40 words cannot possibly be effective. And frankly, any opening sentence that includes the word "Republican" is spring-loaded for failure. This year, the authors of the Pledge understand that it's not about them, the Republicans; it's about you, the American people. Once again, the Pledge wins.

Fourth, the specifics. The Contract offered a detailed course of action. In fact, it proposed eight major reforms, including the first independent audit of Congress and a cut in the congressional budget and staffing, that House members promised to pass (and did) on their very first day in office. The Pledge has no equivalent -- a glaring omission.

Fifth and finally, the closing lines. For those who read it, the effectiveness of the Contract was in the perception that it was a binding document with an enforcement clause. "If we break this contract, throw us out. We mean it." That was written in large, bold letters at the bottom of the TV Guide version, and it is one of the most powerful statements in the document. For the first time in American politics, a group of elected officials explicitly invited their constituents to toss them from office if they failed to do what they promised. (It took Americans 12 years to take them up on that offer.)

By comparison, the Pledge ends with a "call to action" -- always a good approach -- but then it appeals to "men and women of good will and good heart." Who talks like that outside of, say, Sherwood Forest? Advantage: Contract.

Of course, campaign documents don't always resonate or have an impact; just consider the Democratic "Six for '06" campaign, which doesn't even rise to the import of its own Wikipedia entry, and whose authors even acknowledged at the time that it was nothing more than an election gimmick. "It's closing the deal," opined Sen. Chuck Schumer, then chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, hardly a ringing endorsement. Officially called "A New Direction for America," it had none of the legislative detail of the 1994 Contract, none of the intellectual heft of the 2010 Pledge -- and no one other than Nancy Pelosi campaigned on it.

The Pledge is different. It's not quite a contract, but it's definitely more than an agenda. And it addresses the issue that has most incensed the American people over the past two years: It calls for a permanent end to taxpayer-funded bailouts. There should be no room for misinterpretation here. From the bailouts to billionaires to the stimulus package that failed to stimulate to the government takeover of health care, the American people cried "Stop!" -- but the Democratic majority in Washington refused to listen. That alone justifies the Pledge effort. And when examining its other agenda items, I can't help but conclude that the similar criticisms that were leveled at the Contract -- too bold, too timid, too conservative, not conservative enough -- will fail to sink the Pledge as well.

Ultimately, of course, the success of the Pledge will be determined not by the results on Election Day, but by what happens afterward. Still, there's a simple lesson for both parties: The American people aren't just mad as hell. This time, they're truly not going to take it anymore. They'll keep changing their government until their government really changes. So credit Republicans for putting their Pledge on paper. Now, they will be held accountable to the standard they've set for themselves -- and it's a good one.

Frank I. Luntz, a pollster and communications consultant, is the author of "Words That Work: It's Not What You Say, It's What People Hear" and "What Americans Really Want . . . Really." He will be online to discuss this piece on Monday, Sept. 27, at 10 a.m. ET. Submit your questions or comments before or during the discussion.

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