WASHINGTON—When Republicans took over the House of Representatives in 1994, ending four decades of Democratic dominance there, they followed marching orders they'd laid out in their Contract with America.
But if Democrats pull off the biggest shakeup of Congress since then by regaining control of the House and Senate in the Nov. 7 election, they will have no comparable document to guide them and thus may have a smaller claim to a mandate from the voters.
The 1994 Contract with America included draft legislation for budget, tax, military and social policies. It was a roadmap for what the new majority would do starting Day One through their first 100 days.
The Democrats' version this year— "A New Direction for America/Six for `06" —is one page long. It lists six fairly general goals—and raises as many questions as answers.
"It is hardly the specific, comprehensive agenda the GOP had," said Frank Luntz, who helped shape the ྚ Contract with America as a Republican strategist and pollster. "They have made a conscious decision to focus on Republican weakness, and it may turn out to be the right decision. But it means nobody knows what they're going to do."
Released in July and cited sparingly since, Six for ག covers areas of bipartisan concern from national security to Social Security. It calls for the first federal minimum-wage increase in a decade, from $5.15 an hour to $7.25, while steering clear of divisive issues such as abortion, gay rights or the possibility of raising taxes.
In addition, House Democrats commit themselves, within the first 100 hours of legislative business, to raising the minimum wage, reducing lobbyists' influence, repealing oil industry subsidies, cutting interest rates for college loans and authorizing funding to acquire unsecured Soviet-era nuclear weapons that could fall into dangerous hands.
It's on the broader, longer-term goals that the platform House and Senate Democrats share is sketchier.
They propose doubling the size of U.S. military Special Forces and beginning a phased redeployment of troops from Iraq. But the platform sets no numbers or timeline. It also doesn't say where troops would be redirected, or how many would come home.
The platform promises to "end tax giveaways that reward companies for moving American jobs overseas" but offers no details.
Democrats pledge to "stop any plan to privatize Social Security" but don't say what they'd do to stave off the program's projected insolvency.
Some of the detailed proposals are more complicated than they appear.
If they try to dismantle the Medicare drug program, for example, they'd face strong opposition from Republicans, the drug and insurance industries, and probably many seniors now enjoying the subsidy of their drug costs.
On energy, the Democrats' fault the Bush administration for America's growing dependence on foreign oil. But America is likely to remain dependent on foreign oil for decades under any realistic scenario. As a blue-ribbon bipartisan task force for the Council of Foreign Relations recently put it:
"Voices that espouse `energy independence' are doing the nation a disservice by focusing on a goal that is unachievable over the foreseeable future and that encourages the adoption of inefficient and counterproductive policies. ... Leaders of both parties, especially when seeking public office, seem unable to resist announcing unrealistic goals that are transparent efforts to gain popularity rather than inform the public of the challenges the United States must overcome," said the report, National Security Consequences of U.S. Oil Dependency.
As for raising the minimum wage, about 6.6 million workers now earn between $5.15 and $7.25 per hour. An additional 8.3 million earn slightly more and likely would find their wages pushed up as well to maintain some increase above the minimum, according to the Economic Policy Center, a labor-oriented think tank.
Partly because the election is widely seen as a referendum on the Iraq war and Republican rule, and partly because Democrats are too disparate to agree on many specifics, the platform is thus more theme than agenda.
"It makes sense electorally," said professor Lawrence Jacobs, director for the Center for the Study of Politics and Governance at the University of Minnesota. "But I think it's going to lead to a real dog's breakfast when it comes to governing."
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Brendan Daly, communications director for House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., who will become speaker if Democrats take the House, defends the platform. He said some aspects, such as raising the minimum wage, are straightforward. On more complex matters, "there will be legislation for each of those things. We're working on it. That's not until January," when the 110th Congress convenes, Daly said.
John Cullinane, a corporate messaging expert who has advised Pelosi for two years, insists that "the overall message is twice as important as the six things under it. You've just got to keep saying it: `New Direction, New Direction.'"
"Politicians never know when to stop talking," he added. "When you have six concerns, you go down 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, and then you stop. Guys like John Kerry, they just don't know when to stop!"
(McClatchy Newspapers reporter Tony Pugh contributed to this article.)
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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