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The Dems' Newt Ideas

The Democrats, drafting their own Contract With America, have a golden opportunity in 2006. Will they blow it?


Illustration by David Wong  

It was just before midnight last Tuesday—as heartening an Election Day as the Democrats have had in years—when the voice of political upheavals past came gurgling through my phone line. In the early nineties, Frank Luntz fashioned an image for himself as the Howard Beale of pollsters, the mad prophet of the focus group, working first for Ross Perot and then helping Newt Gingrich to concoct the Contract With America. And so I wanted to ask him the obvious question of the moment. “Absolutely, I see a lot of similarities between 1994 and now,” he said. “All the ingredients are there to reverse the Republican majority. Are the stars aligned? Not yet. But they certainly could be.”

Before last week, few Democrats were willing to engage in Luntz’s brand of astronomy, at least publicly. Now they’re suddenly gazing skyward like a bunch of blue-suited Galileos. Most sane pollsters still reckon that the Democrats’ chances of rerunning 1994 with the partisan polarities reversed are no better than one in five. Yet, bolstered by their victories in New Jersey and Virginia—and by fresh poll numbers showing that, by a 48-to-37 percent margin, voters say they desire that Democrats assume control of Congress in the 2006 elections—party strategists speak openly, brazenly, about recapturing the House, while Chuck Schumer channels Frank Luntz before the TV cameras, claiming that if the heavenly bodies “all align correctly, we could even take back the U.S. Senate.”

In pursuit of these dreams, Democrats intend to rip a page directly from the Gingrich-Luntz playbook: They plan to unveil, around the start of the new year, their very own progressive incarnation of the Contract With America. (It won’t be called that, naturally, but God knows what they’ll come up with; tasked with crafting a new slogan for 2006, the party’s marketing geniuses have coughed up “Together, America can do better”—an ungrammatical mash-up of mottoes employed by John Kerry and Freddy Ferrer. Oy.)

No one would ever mistake either of the Democrats’ congressional leaders—Senator Harry Reid or Representative Nancy Pelosi—for even a rough facsimile of the dearly departed Newt. But the Democrats do possess one fast-rising figure who seems to fit the Gingrichian bill: Rahm Emanuel, the chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

A second-term congressman from Illinois, Emanuel made his name as a political aide in the Clinton White House. Combative, blunt, ruthless, and infinitely amped-up, he’s impossible not to like—so long as he’s not pissed off at you, which he often is. (Famously, Emanuel once sent a rotting fish to a pollster who had crossed him.) And yet for all his balls-out pragmatism, he is also respected by the party’s idea merchants. “No one has done more to crystallize the need for a concrete agenda,” says Bruce Reed, another ex–Clinton hand and now president of the Democratic Leadership Council. “He totally gets it.”

What Emanuel gets, as I learned when we met the other day in Washington, are two of the central lessons of 1994. The first is that much of the genius of the original Contract With America was that it turned Tip O’Neill on his head: It nationalized what previously had been 435 local elections. And this is what Emanuel intends to do in 2006. “Republicans keep talking about how they’re going to do this localized, block-and-tackle, Vince Lombardi thing, but we’re not going to let them,” he says. “People out there know we’re at a crossroads, so my view is, the bigger we make this election, the better it is for us.” The second lesson is that the Contract formed the basis of a coherent critique of the ruling party. “We’re going to talk about cronyism, corruption, and abuse of power and how it ties to everything that’s gone wrong,” he says.

For Democrats, however, it’s the other side of the Contract—the positive agenda—where the midterms may be won or lost. And it’s here that Emanuel’s vision gets a good deal less vivid and precise. “Fiscal discipline, education, health care, and energy independence: Those are the components,” he says. When pressed, Emanuel speaks of a budget summit to reach a deal to pare back the deficit, of creating a “hybrid economy” that reduces America’s reliance on foreign oil inside ten years, and of using grants and scholarships to “make college as accessible as high school” for every kid in America.

All worthy objectives, to be sure—but adding up to what? With the original Contract, the Republicans formulated a document that clarified and reinforced the governing philosophy that the party had been honing for more than two decades. That philosophy could be boiled down to a potent (however deceptive and hypocritical in practice) fistful of core principles: lower taxes, strong defense, traditional values, limiting the size and scope of Washington’s purview. As Luntz put it to me, “The Contract wasn’t just an electoral tool—it expressed what the party believed in. Today, you can’t tell me what the Democratic Party stands for. I go to House Democrats and ask them, ‘What is your philosophy?’ And they can’t tell me, either.”

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