Same as the old boss

In the fall of 1994, hundreds of Republicans stood on the Capitol steps to endorse the party’s Contract With America. The manifesto, chiefly crafted by House Republican Whip Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), was devised to give voters a tiny peek at how a GOP Congress would change the status quo. The rhetoric that accompanied its unveiling was deliberately vague, but hinted at what was to come under a Speaker Gingrich.

Newt declared the GOP was on a political roll because “the people were tired of big government, wasteful spending, dumb bureaucracies.” But just how were Republicans going to reduce the size of government, cut spending and change the rules in Washington? Delivering the Contract’s balanced budget along with its huge tax cuts required radical choices. And five weeks before Election Day, Gingrich didn’t have much appetite for details.

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Even GOP-friendly pundits called Republicans out. “GOP leaders did not seem as well-prepared as they should have been,” lamented conservative columnist Donald Lambro. “As Republicans prepare to enter the political arena this fall with the cry that government spends and wastes too much of our money, they had better be armed with billions of dollars’ worth of examples of nonessential spending that could be cut without gutting America’s defense or hurting the most vulnerable members of our society.”

Fast-forward 16 years. House Republican Leader John Boehner (Ohio) has shaped the GOP’s midterm election message, focused again on what his party claims is the Democratic Party’s profligate ways. But like Gingrich then, Boehner’s battle cry is shamefully short on specifics. As Washington Post reporter Dan Balz noted in a profile of the minority leader earlier this month: “Beyond saying Republicans would scrub the budget for wasteful spending, a pledge regularly made and ignored by politicians of both parties, [Boehner] offered no examples of what programs Republicans would actually cut.”

Boehner is adopting Newt’s political tactics, hoping to achieve the same midterm success by betting Americans have short memories about the legislative realities that follow an election.

Once Gingrich got the Speaker’s gavel, the GOP revealed its true agenda. The party voted to abolish the Department of Education; slash hundred of billions from Medicare; gut money for Head Start and student loans; and reduce environmental enforcement by 25 percent. The Republican majority sought to demolish programs that were popular among most Americans, all in the name of an immediately balanced budget and its legislative “crown jewel” — $254 billion in tax cuts for the wealthy.

Once exposed, the GOP’s extreme agenda didn’t make it very far. President Clinton vetoed the worst of it, and then used the specter of its return as a cudgel against Bob Dole in the 1996 campaign.

Having co-authored the original Contract, and having witnessed the following year’s fallout, John Boehner can feel the tightrope beneath his feet. That’s why he won’t fess up to what a GOP majority would once again do if given the chance.

Republican candidates aren’t so coy. Senate nominee Sharron Angle (R-Nev.) has called for abolishing the Environmental Protection Agency. Senate candidate Rand Paul (R-Ky.) is reviving the call for eliminating the Education Department. Republican congressional challenger Allen West (Fla.) supports closing the Department of Energy, causing billions in clean-energy job investments to go up in smoke. Rep. Paul Ryan (Wis.), ranking Republican on the House Budget Committee, has a proposal to privatize Medicare and replace it with vouchers. And Republican leaders have promised to repeal the recently enacted health reform law, meaning the largest healthcare tax cut in history would be rescinded and insurance companies would once again be empowered to deny coverage to those with pre-existing conditions.

While Republicans have some political wind at their backs right now, the next 14 weeks will see a spirited debate about what GOP control of Congress would mean to priorities Americans rank just as high as their desire for less federal spending. And as both the political architect and legislative leader of the Republican Party, John Boehner is following the Gingrich playbook to a T.

Meet the new boss; same as the old boss. Here’s to hoping voters don’t get fooled again.

Del Cecato is a partner at AKPD Message and Media, the political consulting firm founded by David Axelrod in 1985. He served as media adviser and admaker for Obama for America and Obama-Biden 2008.