Newt knew what GOP doesn’t

Now more than ever, congressional Republicans need Newt.

Sixteen years ago, it was then-Minority Leader Gingrich (R-Ga.) who most clearly envisioned the path for his party to break the Democrats’ nearly 40-year grip on the House majority. Beyond the mechanics of engineering a successful campaign (fundraising, recruitment, organizing), Gingrich understood the importance of a broad message framework — one that drew a sharp distinction between the practices of the party in power and the competing agenda of those who sought a new direction.

That year, Republicans unveiled such a framework, dubbing it the Contract with America. A poll-tested menu of legislative measures, the Contract gave GOP candidates more than just a set of substantive initiatives on which to base their individual races. It helped define their party as the true “outsiders,” tapping into voter frustration with business as usual.

But before pundits begin drawing comparisons between Republicans’ prospects in 2010 and the Gingrich Revolution of the ’90s, they should take a closer look at the tenets of the old Contract. Today’s congressional GOP is not only betraying the principles contained in that insurgents’ blueprint — they’ve set themselves up as the very definition of out-of-touch insiders.

Take taxes, for example. For generations, lower taxes have been the bread and butter of the Republican Party platform. The Contract with America included a pledge to pass a $500-per-child tax credit, an effort to connect with middle-class families struggling to make ends meet. Republicans offered tax cuts for small businesses, understanding companies with fewer than 50 employees are the catalyst for job creation.

Fast-forward to the 111th Congress. A little over a year ago, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act passed the House of Representatives without a single Republican vote — and only a couple GOP supporters in the Senate. That legislation — in addition to its extension of unemployment benefits for those out of work and investments in shovel-ready projects to save or create millions of U.S. jobs — reduced taxes for more than 95 percent of America’s working families. Rather than retain their reputation as tax-cutters, Republicans were nearly unanimous in their support for higher taxes on ordinary Americans.

It doesn’t end there. Recently, all but five Republicans voted to block the Senate jobs bill — a measure providing real tax relief to small-business owners struggling to add workers amid an awful economy. Republicans supporting higher taxes on small businesses? Very un-Contract-like, indeed.

But the Republican Revolution of 1994 was about more than taxes. Gingrich also set his sights on what he (and the electorate) saw as Washington politicians who believed in two sets of rules — one for the elected elites, one for everybody else. That’s why Newt added a plank to the Contract requiring all laws that apply to the rest of the country to apply to Congress as well. It was common-sense populism at its very best.

Now, as Washington prepares for an up-or-down vote on health insurance reform, the House of Representatives is faced with a choice that is just as easy to understand. In its current form, the healthcare bill requires members of Congress to forgo their federally funded healthcare benefits and participate in the insurance exchange they’re creating for ordinary Americans. If the GOP makes good on its threat to oppose reform, it’ll be supporting special healthcare benefits for members of Congress — while regular Americans struggle to find quality coverage they can afford. Republicans protect their perks — and you are on your own.

Then there’s the matter of fiscal responsibility. In the 1990s, Gingrich saw the political value in pushing for a constitutional amendment requiring a balanced budget — a sign that Republicans would be committed to reduced spending. But in 2010, health insurance reform presents the GOP with another problem. Independent experts say that if health reform fails — and the runaway cost of health spending is allowed to continue unabated — the federal deficit will rise by a trillion dollars over the next two decades. A vote against healthcare is a vote to push the U.S. deeper in debt to China. The Grand Old Profligates.

As House Speaker, Gingrich made his share of mistakes. But in leading congressional Republicans to victory in 1994, he proved himself a shrewd political operative. Newt should sue his party’s current congressional minority for breach of Contract.

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.