The Seductive Allure of "Ideas"

In 1994, as Republicans were headed for a historic midterm election victory, Newt Gingrich and his compatriots produced the "Contract With America," a point-by-point description of what they wanted to do should they prove victorious. After the election, there was much talk in the media about how their agenda for change had won the day, but the truth was that barely anybody noticed it. A poll from ABC News and the Washington Post in January of 1995—that is, after all the press coverage—found 55.6 percent of respondents saying they had never heard of the Contract, and given that people are generally reluctant to express ignorance about anything in polls, the real number was almost certainly higher.

The Contract itself was a mixture of minor procedural reforms (eliminate the casting of proxy votes in committee markups!), poll-tested nostrums, and what passed for conservative good-government reforms at the time (term limits, a presidential line-item veto). That few voters knew any of its content wasn't surprising. But the idea of ideas—that the existence of the Contract meant this was the party that was thinking thoughts, imagining change, and looking boldly toward a future of transformation (to cite one of Newt's favorite words)—was extremely powerful for those who got swept into office that year. It formed, for many of them, a narrative to explain how they had been successful, and one far more appealing than the truth, which was that the president's party always loses seats in the first midterms, Clinton was struggling particularly, and a lot of Republicans turned out to vote.

You may recall that the next major Republican sweep, in 2010, had no "ideas" behind it, unless you consider "Grrrr, Obama bad!" to be an idea. But the electoral impotence of ideas has not lost its allure, which is why Republicans are now talking about coming up with a new Contract With America for voters to ignore. Here's how Politico described the effort:

A faction of Republicans including Sen. Lindsey Graham is agitating for party leaders to unveil a policy manifesto in the midterm elections, detailing for voters what the GOP would attempt with a Senate majority its members are increasingly confident they'll achieve.

Advocates of the strategy, which has triggered a closed-door debate in recent weeks among the party's current 45 senators, say it would serve as a firm rejoinder to Democrats casting the GOP as the "party of no." They say voters should know what they'd be getting by pulling the lever for Republicans in November.

But not everybody's getting on board:

But the idea has met a cool reception from other senators, including some in leadership such as Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who faces a tough reelection race this year. Skeptics say it would be difficult to unite ideologically diverse candidates around a uniform set of ideas and argue the plan would give Democrats a fat target to attack. Better, they say, to keep the focus squarely on the shortcomings of President Barack Obama and his party than to make promises Republicans might not be able to keep.

Here's the truth: Make a contract, don't make a contract, it won't make any difference to the outcome of the election. If you think there's some large number of undecided voters out there saying, "I'm thinking of voting Republican this year, but I'd just like to learn a bit more about what their agenda is—maybe with some kind of bulleted document," then you don't know much about American elections. When it comes to the ballot box, ideas are vastly overrated.

That isn't to say there aren't a few conservatives out there trying to come up with new ideas, but as E.J. Dionne details in the latest issue of Democracy, anything that strays from the old conservative standbys isn't going to generate much enthusiasm from the party. Republicans know what they believe, and it hasn't changed in the last few decades: cut taxes, cut regulations, cut the safety net, cut those liberals down to size. The power of Republican belief comes from its simplicity. And whether there's another Contract With America, Republicans are going to do just fine in November.

Moreover, Republicans in particular don't really need ideas. They're the party that just wants government to get out of the way. If that's your goal, why bother putting together a plan for governing? Builders need plans; demolition crews just need to know where to point the wrecking ball.