If there were a Nobel Prize for political alchemy, there would be no doubt about who this year's winner would be. According to all the prognosticators, the Republican Party is about to turn a very large lump of steer manure into electoral gold.
The lump has a name — "A Pledge to America" — and a history. This manifesto of Republican beliefs harkens back to the "Contract with America" that was issued in 1994 just before Republicans took control of both houses of Congress. The Pledge is focus group tested to duplicate the success of the Contract.
In the Contract, the Republicans promised they would implement a balanced-budget amendment, a line-item veto, tougher anti-crime legislation, welfare reform, a tax credit for families with children, reduced federal regulation, enhanced national security, reforms in product liability laws and term limits for congressmen.
And what did they actually accomplish? According to David Frum, the conservative commentator, the Contract "helped to discipline the new Republican majority enabling them to achieve important things: welfare reform, a cut in the capital gains tax, a balanced budget."
In other words, the Contract-with-America majority managed to cut assistance to the poor, further enrich the rich and attempt to take credit for the budget surpluses of the Clinton administration. As for the other promises, not much happened even when they got control of the White House in 2000. With all that political power, all they achieved was making the surpluses of the Clinton era disappear.
It is ironic that Frum believed it important that the Contract helped Republicans to march in unison. He was fired from his job at the American Enterprise Institute, a supposed think tank that, like the Heritage Foundation, serves as an outlet for conservative propaganda. His sin was to suggest publicly Republicans would suffer from their blanket opposition to health care reform when there were elements of it that were popular.
While Frum may have been branded a heretic as a result, Republicans followed his advice. The Pledge promises to repeal health care reform, but to keep several of the most popular provisions already enacted.
The Pledge has another historical aspect besides its echo of the Contract. It makes repeated references to the Founding Fathers asserting in effect that it channels their original intent. Wrapping oneself in the flag of the Fathers is an argument for those who have no argument, but that is not the only reason it appeals to present-day Republican politicians. The Founders were male, wealthy, white Anglo-Saxons Protestants just like today's Republican leaders and they wish to return the country to a time when only they called the shots. Any further comparison between the Founders and the Republican leadership breaks down, however, as the former were willing to sacrifice their fortunes and their lives for their county — something no one among the latter is willing to do.
Instead the Pledge argues that the Bush tax cuts must be made permanent for the richest three percent of Americans. No matter that the number of Americans living in poverty and the income inequality between the rich and the poor in this country have both reached record high levels. Those multi-millionaires living a hand to mouth existence must have their $100,000 plus tax cuts to make ends meet.
Making the cuts permanent is justified of course by the claim it will stimulate the economy. The head of the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, however, has noted it would provide only a temporary boost and then become a drag on economic growth by pushing up interest rate.
The Pledge fails not just on economics, but also on national security. It promises to keep the prison at Guantanamo open, a move that will please Osama Bin Laden since it maintains one of his best recruiting tools. And while the Pledge promises to balance the budget by slashing unspecified government programs, it asserts that missile defense must be "fully funded."
That technology does not work and is designed to protect against a threat that does not exist. But it must be deployed, according to the Heritage Foundation and Senator Jim DeMint, not just against a threat from rogue nations. It must be a system so extensive that it protects against the thousands of warheads Russia possesses — a move that Defense Secretary Gates said would be enormously destabilizing and unbelievably expensive.
But the expense of the system is exactly why it is the wet dream of the military-industrial complex and its shills like DeMint and Heritage. They would argue that anyone opposed to squandering unlimited amounts of money on worthless weapons programs is clearly soft on national defense.
And as for the one child in five who lives in poverty in America, Republicans have no plan other than to say it must be a result of a lack of personal responsibility. That is the kind of politicians all set to triumph in November, unless voters figure out their alchemy only produces fool's gold.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Dennis Jett, a former U.S. ambassador to Mozambique and Peru, is a professor of international affairs at Penn State's School of International Affairs.
McClatchy Newspapers did not subsidize the writing of this column; the opinions are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of McClatchy Newspapers or its editors.