I submitted this piece to a couple of papers this month. So far no interest. Maybe as we get closer to November…
Republican Resurrection? Let the Buyer Beware.
Washington and Lee University
If, as one great Republican named Lincoln said, “a house divided cannot stand,” then the GOP should get used to sitting down. The party last represented itself on the national stage as a four-headed monster comprised of Sarah Palin, John McCain, Mike Huckaby and Mitt Romney. Try to find a coherent center or common ground (besides party label) among these four candidates. It may take a while.
More evidence that the party is hopelessly divided against itself emanated from the election in New York’s 23rd congressional district election last month. Dede Scozzafava, the GOP nominee withdrew in favor of her Democratic opponent, Bill Owens because her candidacy had been mortally wounded by the challenge posed by Conservative Doug Hoffman. The Democrats took the district for the first time since 1993.
In hopes of getting the party back together, Newt Gingrich recently suggested that the Republicans need a new, revitalized Contract with America. Newt’s original Contract was a stroke of political genius. It led to the Republican takeover of the House of Representatives in 1994—for the first time in 40 years. The problem was that while the Contract was a masterstroke of campaign strategy, it was a disingenuous campaign promise.
A careful look at the Contract demonstrated that it promised very little. The GOP promised to bring questions to the floor of the House and to push for popular policies such as a line item veto for the president, special voting procedures on tax bills and so forth. But, these were pretty empty promises because the House of Representatives is part of a bicameral Congress that shares power with a President. The promises in the Contract bound no one because Newt Gingrich Gingrich and the House Republicans had no control over President Clinton (a Democrat) and, worse, the Senate Republicans. In fact, if one recalls, the Republican Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole was as much of an obstacle to the Contract’s success as President Clinton was.
Republicans may not care to admit it, but the call for a Contract was and is a prayer for constitutional reform. A “contract” would work in a parliamentary system of government. In such a system the executive and legislative powers would not be split between a President and Congress. They’d be fused into one branch of government led by a Prime Minister who was backed by a unified party.
Parliamentary systems of government combine the powers of our President and Speaker of the House into one Prime Minister—and they dispense with independent, powerful “upper” legislative houses known as Senates. They are designed to pursue contractual politics such as that proposed by Gingrich with an efficiency and partisan control that is literally foreign to our constitutional system. But, in a constitutional system such as America’s, “contract politics” embody hollow hopes and false, disingenuous promises. No member of Congress will be bound by a contract because—as all members of Congress know and as we saw in 1994—the constitutional system is designed to liberate legislators from such constraints.
So, in response to Republican offers of a new Contract with America, voters should abide by the Latin Maxim “Caveat Emptor” (“Let the Buyer Beware”). Political reform will require much more than a “contract” with one of the political parties. It will require nothing less than a sustained effort to change the manner in which the constitution organizes politics. So far, with exceptions of Californians, the American voters have not demonstrated a willingness to pay the price for that.