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America Doesn't Need Another 'Contract With America'—Not Even a Liberal One

Stan Honda/Getty Images

Bill de Blasio says he wants to do what Newt Gingrich did in 1994, but for progressives. Maybe he should stop saying that.

The New York mayor, joined by Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and economist Joseph Stiglitz, rolled out his Progressive Agenda in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday; it's a 13-point plan calling for a higher minimum wage, universal pre-kindergarten, and higher taxes on the wealthy. De Blasio has explicitly compared it to Gingrich’s 1994 “Contract with America,” a set of legislative proposals often credited with helping Republicans win a majority in Congress for the first time in 40 years in those midterm elections, and which gave them the appearance of a sweeping national mandate for specific conservative legislation. On MSNBC's “Morning Joe” last week, de Blasio said, “I obviously disagree with Newt Gingrich on many things. But in 1994, he put forward the Contract with America. It had a crystallizing effect for his party and for conservatives. It was a clear, sharp set of ideas about how to change America—in my view, in the wrong direction. But as an organizational tool it was very effective.”

That depends on your definition of "effective." The 1994 Contract was very effective in getting attention from the press. It was very effective in making Newt Gingrich famous. It was effective at setting the legislative agenda of Congress. It was kind of effective at getting legislation passed. It was kind of effective at making conservatives happy. It was not effective in electing Bob Dole president in 1996. And it was definitely not effective at solving many of the long-term social trends it was supposed to address.

De Blasio (and maybe Gingrich, too) might hope we don’t go back and look at what the Contract with America actually proposed, because a lot of it is awful. Sometimes sifting through newspaper archives from just 20 years ago feels like you’re stumbling through the remnants of an ancient barbaric civilization. What was wrong with you people? In the primitive writings of these strange humans (Americans in the '90s) we can find many lessons for today's progressive mayor of New York.

De Blasio suggests that “on the ground” it’s clear there’s a popular movement toward more progressive policies, a demand Washington address income inequality. There’s a lot of evidence to suggest that’s true. And that’s what makes the comparison to the 1994 Contract a little uncomfortable. The Contract with America was designed to include only issues that had the support of 60 percent of the public—it was supposed to be a unifying agenda of things Americans with good common horse sense agreed on. Today, that good common horse sense looks dumb.

The Contract with America had ten planks, and Republicans promised to vote on all ten in their first 100 days in office. The Personal Responsibility Act had many measures for reforming welfare, but the one clearly designed to capture the public’s attention was the one that would punish poor teen girls for having sex: Women who had kids before they turned 18 would have been banned from welfare for life. Here’s how the Heritage Foundation approvingly analyzed the political calculation of the Contract in 1995:

The items in the Contract were carefully selected in terms of issues that were of fundamental policy importance but also were "doable," that could be accomplished rather quickly because of the broad support they engendered. …

The Personal Responsibility Act of the Contract sought to fundamentally revamp the role of the state in welfare policy by developing policies to reduce teenage pregnancies and illegitimate births by prohibiting aid to mothers under 18 who give birth out of wedlock and requiring them to name the fathers of their children, who would be held accountable for their actions. Such women would be required to live at home to receive any aid and would not get housing subsidies to set up their own apartments. The Act also required that aid be cut off if recipients did not work.

As if a teen would ever tell her boyfriend, “You are a good boyfriend who is sexually attractive and also nice. However, we cannot have sexual intercourse because if I were to get pregnant, I would not be eligible for government assistance in raising the child.” Teen pregnancy did drop steadily in the '90s and the decades after. But it was not because of the Contract with America (the above provision never became law). It was because of sex education and greater birth control options. It turns out that shaming poor women for having sex works less well than low-cost long-term contraceptives.

Another major plank of the Contract with America is especially relevant right now: The Taking Back Our Streets Act. The legislation is kind of an All-Time Worst Hits of Law Enforcement, as it called for longer prison sentences and more prisons. States that could prove felons served at least 85 percent of their sentences would get more money. It would be harder to appeal a death sentence, and easier to admit evidence collected unconstitutionally in criminal prosecutions.

Again, these ideas were very popular at the time. The Washington Post noted on October 11, 1994, that “virtually all polls [are] showing that crime has replaced the economy as the top public concern.” (“What is so wrong with giving the public what it wants, just for once?” GOP pollster Frank Luntz, who worked for Gingrich, said in the same Post story.) Then-President Bill Clinton had passed a 1994 crime bill; in 1995, the new Republican majority tried to make it tougher. In August 1995, Florida Rep. Bill McCollum of Florida told The New York Times, "If you can get these violent criminals to serve more time, you will inevitably reduce the violent crime rate… Anyone who is locked up will not commit a crime." 

This turned out to be very bad analysis. Crime had peaked in 1991, and, as the Brennan Center’s Inimai M. Chettiar wrote in The Atlantic in February, it was not because of the prison boom. Only about 5 percent of the drop in crime is attributable to increased incarceration, and the "growth of incarceration had no observable effect on violent crime in the 1990s or 2000s." Clinton has renounced his own crime bill: "We have too many people in prison."

So we are somewhat lucky, because the Contract with America failed to produce much new crime law, aside from making death penalty appeals more difficult. Despite all the polling on crime and the buzz about Gingrich, Republican changes to Clinton's crime bill faltered amid congressional bickering over funding for more police officers. Other parts of the 1994 Contract have been largely abandoned, or addressed inside baseball stuff about how Congress works, like term limits for members of Congress and rules about seniority on congressional committees. 

Did conservatives get what they wanted out of the Contract? Not really. Edward H. Crane wrote in Forbes in November 2000:

There will always be a party that believes the coercive mechanisms of the state are the appropriate means for ordering societal affairs. The Democrats fill this role by instinct. But these days it appears the GOP has grown into it.

Consider: Over the past three years the Republican-controlled Congress has approved discretionary spending that exceeded Bill Clinton’s requests by more than $30 billion. The party that in 1994 would abolish the Department of Education now brags in response to Clinton’s 2000 State of the Union Address that it is outspending the White House when it comes to education. My colleagues Stephen Moore and Stephen Slivinski found that the combined budgets of the 95 major programs that the Contract with America promised to eliminate have increased by 13%.

The obvious point is the popular thing is not always the right thing. De Blasio is responding to years of middle class wage stagnation and a widening wealth gap. And he's got great enemies—last week The Wall Street Journal noted that society types are annoyed de Blasio's wife won't go to fancy socialite charity galas. (A publicist told the Journal, “They have made themselves socially irrelevant. It is a major shortcoming not to mingle with all classes.”) What could possibly go wrong? Well, Gingrich and his fellow Republicans were also responding to troubling long-term social trends with popular proposals to punish the bad guys; it's not as if they called for 1.5 million black men to go "missing" due to early death or prison. Critics of de Blasio and other progressives say they are cynically trying to whip up a pitchfork-wielding mob, and their populist policies could have unintended consequences while failing to address the problems they're designed to solve. Imitating Newt won't dispel that.

The only thing the Contract has a rock-solid record on is the publicity it brought its author. Gingrich, naturally, is relishing the attention de Blasio's Progressive Agenda has given him after a few years out of the spotlight. On Twitter, he offered to debate contracts with the mayor. On Facebook, he said in a short video, “I look forward to debating him, and I think it's very important to recognize the original Contract with America had big ideas that were real, backed up by real legislation, that led to real change.” Gingrich even wrote an op-ed in the New York Post, offering "advice" for de Blasio: "I’m flattered, Mr. Mayor. But allow me to offer a few cautionary thoughts. ... It’s impossible for Mayor de Blasio to create a document in the mold of the Contract with America—ideas supported by large majorities of Americans—if it is based on far-left ideas."

On this count, the liberal Contract with America is clearly working for him. According to Topsy, de Blasio got a surge of mentions on Twitter after news broke of his Progressive Agenda. He appeared on MSNBC, his plan was discussed on NPR, and it got a "SIREN!" headline from Politico's Mike Allen. If that's what de Blasio wants for himself, following Gingrich's path is a fantastic idea. If he wants to lessen income inequality or pass laws or satisfy progressives or just generally make America a better place, he should try something else.