The GOP Agenda Probably Won't Influence Midterms – the "Contract with America" Didn'tRoundup
tags: Republican Party, conservatism, political history, Newt Gingrich, Contract With America
Robert Fleegler is an associate professor of history at the University of Mississippi.
In late September, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) and his chamber’s Republicans unveiled their “Commitment to America,” an agenda that they hope will propel them to victory in November and then provide a blueprint for governing.
But a myth is driving this effort: that Newt Gingrich and his fellow Republicans captured the House in 1994 for the first time in four decades due to the popularity of their “Contract With America.” In reality, that historic midterm victory had little to do with the Contract — which has major implications for the 2022 midterm elections.
In the early 1990s, a strong anti-establishment mood swept the country. Frustration with persistent budget deficits, political gridlock and the 1990-91 recession contributed to a gloomy outlook regarding the nation’s future. Several highly publicized congressional scandals — including numerous members overdrawing their accounts at the House bank without penalty — exacerbated the cynicism toward the federal government that had prevailed since the Watergate scandal in the early 1970s. Approval of Congress as an institution fell significantly, although many still told pollsters they liked their own representatives.
Some incumbents who had traditionally enjoyed easy reelections suddenly found themselves in more challenging races. In the 1990 midterms, two of the front-runners for the 1992 Democratic presidential nomination suffered significant blows. Sen. Bill Bradley (D-N.J.) nearly lost to the little-known Christie Todd Whitman (who would be elected governor three years later). New York Gov. Mario Cuomo won a third term, but with a relatively weak showing over two uninspiring challengers.
In 1992, Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton ran as a Washington outsider on the mantra of “change” to oust President George H.W. Bush and become the first Democratic president in 12 years. In an even more dramatic illustration of the electorate’s disdain for the status quo, businessman Ross Perot ran one of the most successful third-party campaigns in American history, focusing on the issue of budget deficits. He won 19 percent of the vote despite mysteriously dropping out of the race before later reentering it.
Clinton stumbled early in his presidency, reneging on or failing to carry out some campaign promises, notably including his pledge to overhaul the health-care system. Even one of Clinton’s most significant early achievements — deficit reduction in the form of spending cuts and higher taxes on the wealthy — barely passed on party-line votes. Many Americans were also frustrated with the slow pace of the economic recovery during the first two years of his presidency.
This combination laid the groundwork for Republicans to follow the historical tradition of the party out of power making gains in the midterm elections.