The Dems’ Newt Ideas

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.”

Emanuel maintains that the claim is a shopworn Republican canard—although poll after poll shows that voters overwhelmingly believe it to be true. But when I ask if the Democrats’ forthcoming contract will elucidate the matter, his response is deeply depressing. “When is our big branding opportunity? It’s during a presidential election,” he says, as we stand on a street corner outside the Longworth building. “You’re setting up a task that I’m not going under any circumstances to achieve from the congressional wing of the minority party in a midterm election. It’s not possible.” Emanuel throws up his hands. “If you say to me, ‘Rahm, people still don’t know who we are,’ I say, ‘Yeah, for fucking good reason.’ We haven’t sold it enough in the past, and it’s not going to happen in 2006 to the significance we need.”

“If you say to me, ‘Rahm, people still don’t know who we are,’ I say, ‘Yeah, for good reason.’ We haven’t sold it enough.”

Gingrich, of course, demonstrated that “branding” could indeed take place in the years between presidential elections. More to the point, in the absence of an overriding governing philosophy (or ideology, if you prefer), any Democratic agenda will be prone to look like little more than a laundry list of programs. And that, I fear, is what the Democratic contract may resemble. As various Democrats rattle off its putative provisions, there are echoes of warmed-over Clintonism. (Emanuel does his part to further this impression by referring to the agenda at times as “Re-putting people first.”) And while warmed- over Clintonism is infinitely preferable to the Republican reign of neglect and incompetence in virtually every policy realm, it may also serve as a too-ripe target for GOP charges of tax-and-spend.

Then there’s the glaring omission from all discussion of a Democratic contract: Iraq. At a moment when every poll shows that the war and its costs, in lives and treasure, are on the mind of every sentient being in the country—and have become a giant albatross around the neck of the president and his party—to leave Iraq out of the Democrats’ foundational campaign document seems bizarre. The obvious explanation is that there is no consensus on the matter in the party, although Emanuel maintains that the differences that exist are small and narrowing. “What’s happened in the last three weeks is that there’s now two wings of the party,” he says. “Get out now and get out in two years.”

Emanuel’s friend Bruce Reed, for one, disagrees, saying he thinks that setting a certain date for withdrawal from Iraq is a flawed idea. Moreover, he points to the sort of conversation the party should be having about national security. “Democrats need to broaden the debate to show how we would win the war on terror,” he says. “There’s no end to how much you can critique the Bush administration for how it’s handled Iraq. But Americans are pragmatic: They want to look forward; they want to know what you’re going to do. The risk for Democrats is that we’ll define ourselves as the antiwar party in the war on terror—and fall back into the trap where we were defined as weak in the seventies and eighties. We should be talking about what’s America’s plan for after Iraq. How do we define a progressive internationalism?”

To have that kind of conversation in preparation for 2006 would require congressional leaders who are decidedly more like Gingrich (before he lost his mind, that is). Hence another reason why the Democratic contract may prove less galvanizing than the Republican one before it. “In 1994, Newt was the leader; he was the man,” Luntz points out. “But the Democrats have no leader, at least in the sense of a visionary. What they have are tacticians, like Harry Reid, and screamers, like Nancy Pelosi. And that may be their undoing.”

Given all this, it’s not surprising that many Republicans—even with the scare put into them by last Tuesday’s elections—seem less than terrified by what the Democrats appear to be planning. As Speaker Dennis Hastert was quoted in the New York Times as telling House Republicans, “Even today, as tough as things seem, it is much better to be us than them.”

Democrats can take some comfort in knowing that Republicans were similarly belittled in the fall of 1993. Emanuel points out that the Democratic contract remains a work in progress—and that Republicans waited until late September 1994 to roll out the original. Still, Democrats should do whatever is necessary to get their act together, for the sort of opportunity presented them now is something rare and special. When a president insists on digging himself and his party into an ever-deeper hole, you don’t want to miss the chance to bury them.


The Dems’ Newt Ideas