Seven important things to know about the GOP’s “Pledge”

Jon Ward Contributor
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House Speaker hopeful John Boehner, the current minority leader from Ohio, wanted his plan for governance – a remake of the 1994 “Contract with America” – to stay out of the press until Thursday morning. That didn’t happen.

House GOP aides sent angry internal e-mails to leadership staff, and the press had all afternoon and evening to pore over the 21-page document before Boehner and others roll out their “Pledge to America” at a hardware store in Sterling, Va.

You can read the full document here, but in an effort to condense and contextualize the proposal, here are the seven most interesting things to emerge out of its release.

1. Republicans timed their rollout to coincide with Obama’s trip to the United Nations.

Obama is in New York at the United Nations General Assembly. His attention is focused in large part on international diplomacy and bilateral meetings with foreign leaders. So he is unable to punch back at Boehner and the Republicans as hard as he would prefer.

It’s worth keeping in mind that Boehner’s chief of staff – the man who had primary responsibility for pulling the “Pledge” together and planning its release – is Barry Jackson. You may not know that name because Jackson is a 49-year old publicity-shunning political veteran.

But Jackson knows plenty about how a president’s megaphone works, having been a top political adviser to George W. Bush through the entirety of his two terms as president. So Jackson would have known that Obama’s trip to the U.N., which is locked in and largely outside the White House’s control, was a good time to step up and grab the mic.

2. The “Pledge” is full of nods to the Tea Party.

The word “liberty” is used eight times.

The document is a full-throated endorsement of conservative grassroots populism, casting Washington elites as the problem and the Constitution as the solution.

For example: “An arrogant and out of touch government of self-appointed elites makes decisions, issues mandates, and enacts laws without accepting or requesting the input of the many.”

There is a specific endorsement of state powers versus the federal government: “We pledge to honor the Constitution as constructed by its framers and honor the original intent of those precepts that have been consistently ignored — particularly the Tenth Amendment, which grants that all powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the states, are reserved to the states respectively, or to the people.”

The “Pledge” invites “fellow citizens and patriots” to join the GOP, but also recognizes that it is “a time of intense public distrust in politicians and the political system,” and admits that “it’s not enough … to swap out one set of leaders for another.”

“That’s why we are offering a plan to reform Congress and restore trust so that we can put power back where it belongs: in the hands of the people,” the GOP document says. “We will launch a prolonged campaign to transfer power back to the people and ensure they have a say in what goes on in the Congress.”

But that message was undercut somewhat when one of the Republican staffers who helped with the “Pledge” project, Brian Wild, was discovered to be a former lobbyist for major energy and pharmaceutical companies.

NEXT: Paul Ryan’s “Roadmap” proposals nowhere to be found in “Pledge”

3. Paul Ryan’s ideas are pointedly not included, and he isn’t attending the unveiling.

Rep. Paul Ryan, the Wisconsin Republican who has released a “Road Map” to reform entitlement spending, has been praised by policy experts on all sides of the political spectrum – who cite his willingness to offer up any plan at all as sorely lacking in Washington – but has opened up the GOP to attack ads that seek to scare seniors, even though Ryan’s plan wouldn’t change anything for those currently in the programs.

So Ryan was not included in drafting the “Pledge” and will be conspicuously absent from the event with Boehner and a dozen other GOP leaders at Thursday’s unveiling. And the GOP document does not come within several light years of talk about moving Medicare toward a voucher system or Social Security toward private accounts.

“We will make the decisions that are necessary to protect our entitlement programs for today’s seniors and future generations. That means requiring a full accounting of Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, setting benchmarks for these programs and reviewing them regularly, and preventing the expansion of unfunded liabilities,” the document reads.

Ryan’s office declined comment. But Ryan will be on “Good Morning America” Thursday to promote the document, a GOP aide said, and the congressman told Roll Call that the proposal was “all good.”

“We have to recognize that if we get the majority, we will be dealing with a divided government situation. We don’t want to over-promise,” he said.

4. Social values conservatives got a handshake and a pat on the back, but not much more.

Before the full document came out Wednesday afternoon, House Republicans leaked the broad-based language on support for life and marriage to Politico, leading to an afternoon story headlined, “GOP Agenda to Include Social Issues.”

Shortly after, leading social conservative Robert George – who had not yet seen the full document but who led an energetic effort to extract a commitment from Boehner to include the religious right’s issues in the document – told The Daily Caller: “I think it’s pretty clear that we’ve prevailed.”

“I was very concerned that there was a great deal of reliable talk that these issues would not find a place in the agenda of the Republican Party … in this statement of commitments,” said George, a respected legal jurist who teaches at Princeton University and is a founder of the American Principles Project and the National Organization for Marriage.

The APP and other leading values groups presented Boehner and GOP leaders with more than 30,000 signatures demanding that they be included in the Republican document. But the “Pledge” turned out to have little of substance for the value voters movement.

“We pledge to advance policies that promote greater liberty, wider opportunity, a robust defense, and national economic prosperity. We pledge to honor families, traditional marriage, life, and the private and faith-based organizations that form the core of our American values,” it said in the introduction.

The only specifics that followed in the subsequent 21 pages, however, were a promise to “permanently end taxpayer funding of abortion and codify the Hyde Amendment,” and to pass conscience clauses into law for physicians and medical workers.

Nonetheless, George said late Wednesday after reading the document that he and the APP would “fully and enthusiastically support the Pledge.”

“What we demanded of the GOP was a firm and clear commitment to marriage, life, and the free and full participation of faith-based institutions in our public life. We got it. Our goal was not to shift the focus of the ‘Pledge’ to social issues, but to make sure that the GOP’s longstanding pro-life and pro-marriage commitments were not abandoned, compromised, or passed over in silence,” George said.

But Family Research Council President Tony Perkins admitted some “disappointment,” though he said the content was still better than the 94 “Contract.”

“While I have some disappointment that the pledge to honor the values issues such as traditional marriage were not more clearly defined within the document, this is a significant improvement over the 94 Contact with America which was silent on the moral issues. The Pledge is not exceptional, but it is satisfactory, as it does lay a foundation to build upon, and it moves Congressional Republicans to a place of public acknowledgment that values issues are to be a part of the conservative way forward.”

NEXT: “Pledge” high on rhetoric, weaker on legislative substance

5. The “Pledge” is heavier than the ’94 “Contract” on rhetorical flourishes, and lighter on legislative meat.

The “Pledge” spends more time than the Contract did articulating foundational principles for governance, and while it has some specific ideas it does not include legislative proposals like the “Contract” did.

There is plenty of wordplay: “The American people know that to boost the economy, spending must be slashed, tax increases must be prevented, and small businesses must have certainty that the rules won’t change every few months so they can get back on their feet. “

But that is in contrast to the “Contract,” which was far more skeletal and direct, getting right to the point: a list of things a Republican Congress would do on its first day and a list of bills it would introduce in the first year.

Influential conservative blogger and activist Erick Erickson was not impressed with the “Pledge.”

“Yes, yes, it is full of mom tested, kid approved pablum [sic] that will make certain hearts on the right sing in solidarity. But like a diet full of sugar, it will actually do nothing but keep making Washington fatter before we crash from the sugar high,” Erickson wrote. “The pledge begins by lamenting ‘an arrogant and out-of-touch government of self-appointed elites’ issuing ‘mandates,’ then proceeds to demand health care mandates on insurance companies that will drive up the costs of health care for ordinary Americans.”

Erickson was referring to the portion of the “Pledge” that promises to stop insurance companies from denying coverage to someone based on a preexisting condition.

But there were a few provocative proposals included in the “Pledge” that will probably excite the grassroots:

  • “Require each bill moving through Congress to include a clause citing the specific constitutional authority upon which the bill is justified.”
  • “Roll back government spending to pre‐stimulus, pre‐bailout levels, saving us at least $100 billion in the first year alone and putting us on a path to balance the budget and pay down the debt … Without a budget, Washington will try to get away with continuing to spend at current ‘stimulus’ levels. We cannot allow that to happen.”
  • “Allow small business owners to take a tax deduction equal to 20 percent of their business income.”
  • “When the game is always changing, small business cannot properly plan for the future. To provide stability, we will require congressional approval of any new federal regulation that has an annual cost to our economy of $100 million or more … The White House’s own internal departments have identified 191 planned rules that will have an economic cost of at least $100 million.”

Other proposals, like “strict budget caps” and “significantly” reducing Congress’ budget are so vague they invited criticism for pandering. The move to cancel the TARP program would be more symbolically important, since it would save $16 billion out of a program that spent $700 billion.

Then there is the promise to repeal Obama’s health care plan, which has virtually no chance of happening in the next Congress. And a promise to “end government control of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac” sounds good, but the consequences for the U.S. housing market of such a move would be dire, since the two failed mortgage giants currently back all or part of 90 percent of all home mortgages. That is the main reason why Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner has not moved more quickly to fix the problem.

NEXT: Democrats have problem landing initial punch against the “Pledge”

6. Democrats had trouble landing punches in their initial response.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office responded immediately to the document, and the White House followed suit a few hours later. But both had trouble laying a real glove on the Republicans, in part because the GOP kept things pretty general in the areas where specifics could hurt them, particularly on entitlements.

White House communications director Dan Pfeiffer went after the plan in a blog post, but was reduced to repeating talking points on the tax cut argument and to saying it is “notable for what it doesn’t talk about: protecting Social Security and Medicare from privatization schemes; investing in high-quality education for our nation’s children; growing key industries like clean energy and manufacturing; and rebuilding our crumbling roads, rails and runways.”

7. The “Pledge” begins with a modern, watered down version of the Declaration of Independence.

Not surprisingly, the “Pledge” does not go so far in endorsing a shakeup of the existing order as the Declaration of Independence. Where the Declaration says that the people may “alter or abolish” and “throw off” a government that becomes “destructive” of the nation’s founding principles, the document written by the men and women not yet in power but hoping to be says only that if a government is “destructive” then it is “the right of the people to institute a new governing agenda.” There is no mention of a new government or of the “new guards” described in the Declaration.

NEXT: Side by side comparison of the Declaration of Independence and the 2010 GOP “Pledge” to America

Here is a side by side comparison of the two portions:


We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.

America is an idea – an idea that free people can govern themselves, that government’s powers are derived from the consent of the governed, that each of us is endowed by their Creator with the unalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. America is the belief that any man or woman can – given economic, political and religious liberty – advance themselves, their families and the common good. America is an inspiration to those who yearn to be free and have the ability and the dignity to determine their own destiny. Whenever the agenda of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to institute a new governing agenda and set a different course.

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