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Debunking the myths of the Contract

Wherever Democrats debate strategy and tactics, conversation inevitably turns to the Republican’s Contract with America. It is the Rorschach inkblot in which everyone sees something different but most visualize salvation. Such visions, though, are often clouded by the legends that have grown up around this document.

Wherever Democrats debate strategy and tactics, conversation inevitably turns to the Republican’s Contract with America. It is the Rorschach inkblot in which everyone sees something different but most visualize salvation. Such visions, though, are often clouded by the legends that have grown up around this document.

Without rendering a judgment on the wisdom of imitation, let’s strip away the mythology.

First, the Contract was not welcomed as important new policy. Whenever Democrats lament the absence of a compelling party agenda, they invoke the Contract as the Holy Grail. But, as former Reps. Dick Armey (R-Texas) and Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) have admitted, they simply foraged through Ronald Reagan’s 1984 speeches looking for popular proposals that had not been enacted.

Second, the Contract was not a prominent element in the campaigns of individual Republicans. The late David Rosenbaum wrote The New York Times story on its unveiling, noting that “one reason for today’s event was to dispel the notion that Republicans are obstructionists who have no ideas of their own.” (Not even the vocabulary changes!)

But few if any Republican candidates actually used the Contract in their own campaign advertising. Candidate Joe Scarborough was featured in a national story answering voters’ questions without reference to the newly signed Contract: “Welfare reform? ‘I personally don’t believe the federal government should be involved in welfare.’ Healthcare? ‘That’s an issue for the states.’ Crime? ‘The federal government shouldn’t be involved.’”

In late October 1994, the now-departed and universally respected Republican pollster Bob Teeter underlined the Contract’s irrelevance. “This is not going to be the campaign that debated healthcare or foreign policy or taxes or recession. It’s none of them. What underlies this is the sense that government and the congressional process don’t work.”

Finally, there is not a scintilla of evidence to suggest the Contract had any impact on voters. The best advocates can do is make an argument akin to that made on behalf of magic: “We spoke the words and saw results.”

Contemporaneous polls made clear that few even heard the words. In October 1994, 75 percent of voters told Gallup they had never heard of the Contract. A week before the election, the CBS/New York Times poll found 71 percent admitting they had heard nothing about the Contract.

Analyzing his own pre-election poll, Andy Kohut concluded, “The much-ballyhooed Republican Contract with America has failed to do much to improve the prospects of Republican candidates. … Only 3 in 10 (29 percent) claimed to have heard about the document.”

But did it move the few who knew? No. Kohut’s poll said 7 percent were more likely to vote Republican because of the Contract but 6 percent were less likely to do so. Gallup had 4 percent more likely to vote Republican but 5 percent lees likely to do so. The CBS/NYT results were nearly identical.

Of course, Republicans did win big that year. But as with magic, the fact that something happens after the words are uttered is not evidence of causation.

Writing shortly before the election, Charlie Cook exposed the fallacy: The Contract “has turned out to be a non-starter rather than the defining moment of the 1994 campaign. ... Before the contract was offered, this was going to be a very good year for Republicans; now that it has been out for a couple of weeks it is still going to be a very good year for Republicans.”

A Contract may be magic in ’06; it wasn’t in ’94.

Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has worked for Democratic candidates and causes since 1982, including Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) in 2004.