- The Washington Times - Monday, March 14, 2005

THE ENDURING REVOLUTION: HOW THE CONTRACT WITH AMERICA CONTINUES TO SHAPE THE NATION

Major Garrett

Crown Forum, $25.95, 325 pages

When I heard that my former colleague at U.S. News & World Report, Major Garrett, was writing a book about the Contract with America, I feared that there would be little in it that I didn’t already know.

After all, I had covered the contract and the first days of the first Republican Congress. I was, so far as I know, the first in the national press to write that the Republicans had a serious chance of winning a majority in the House in 1994. I was right about the election but, boy, was I wrong about the book. “The Enduring Revolution” told me all kinds of things I did not know. And I don’t know how long it’s been since I’ve encountered a book on politics and policy that was so much fun to read.

Mr. Garrett’s first major point about the contract is this: It wasn’t just Newt. Lots of other people played major roles. Dick Armey, far from being a Gingrich confidant, was a solo operator, and it was his staffer, Kerry Knott who came up with the title Contract with America. Moderate Republican members frustrated by their party’s minority status — Steve Gunderson, Tom Tauke, Nancy Johnson, Jennifer Dunn, Deborah Pryce — provided key support at critical times.

John Kasich’s insistence on drawing up a Republican budget put the new majority in a position to govern. Republican National Chairman Haley Barbour and his top staffer, Don Fierce, provided leadership in 1993 and 1994 in nationalizing the issues quite independently of House Republicans, even though they thought it unlikely that Republicans could win majorities anytime soon.

All this came at a time when Bill Clinton and the Democrats had an opportunity to forge an electoral majority for their party. Mr. Garrett interviewed not only Republicans but Democrats — Clinton staffers Bruce Reed and Paul Begala, Speaker Tom Foley and Majority Leader Dick Gephardt — and shows how congressional leaders moved the young president dangerously far to the left. Like Mr. Barbour and Mr. Fierce, they were operating under the assumption that Democratic congressional majorities were perpetual. Yet the joint effects of their decisions and actions ended up proving that assumption wrong.

The conventional wisdom around Washington is that the Contract with America was a bust. Gingrich and company, it is thought, failed to achieve most of their objectives and were rebuked by the voters. Mr. Garrett shows how wrong this conventional wisdom is.

The 1995-96 budget showdown with Mr. Clinton set Republicans back with some voters. But by holding spending in place for a year it also set the trajectory that led to a balanced budget. The Republican majority put into place new policies like the child tax credit, college tuition tax credits and tax-free savings accounts. It passed and maneuvered Mr. Clinton into signing welfare reform. It increased the defense and intelligence budgets. It effectively advanced ballistic missile defense.

It is a maxim in politics that he who frames the issues tends to determine the outcome. The Contract with America and the Republican victory in 1994 framed many issues in ways that are still decisive; Mr. Garrett ingeniously notes that many of John Kerry’s 2004 campaign stands were Contract-inspired.

The ultimate reality in politics can be found in the election returns. As Mr. Garrett points out, the Republicans’ decision to nationalize the 1994 election produced a surge in turnout which permanently reshaped the electorate. The number of votes cast for Republican candidates for the House increased 32 percent from 1990 to 1994. The number of votes cast for Democrats fell 3 percent.

Yes, the Republican percentage in the House vote declined in 1996. But Republicans have now won the popular vote for the House in six straight elections. The Republican surge in House votes has now been matched by a surge in presidential vote in 2004, as George W. Bush’s vote increased 23 percent while Mr. Kerry’s vote increased 16 percent over Al Gore’s.

What Republicans make of these majorities is still not clear, as Mr. Garrett’s riveting account of the passage of the Medicare prescription-drug bill in 2003 shows. But what cannot be gainsaid is that the Contract with America and the Republican victory that followed did produce an enduring revolution, whose ramifications and reverberations are still being played out. Major Garrett shows better than anyone else how we got there.

Michael Barone is a senior writer for U.S. News & World Report and co-author of “The Almanac of American Politics.”

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