February 20, 2010 in Nation/World

Conservatives draft new contracts

Movement modeled on GOP’s 1994 success
Kathleen Hennessey Tribune Washington bureau
Associated Press photo

Former presidential candidate Ron Paul is applauded at the Conservative Political Action Conference on Friday.
(Full-size photo)

WASHINGTON – While tea party activists and other conservatives cherish the values of the Founding Fathers and the Spirit of ’76, their emerging strategy for the November elections has more in common with the Spirit of ’94 – the year Republicans ended 40 years of Democratic dominance on Capitol Hill.

Just as conservative strategists centered the 1994 Republican campaign on a “Contract with America,” GOP leaders in the House have pledged to issue their own, updated version of the bullet-pointed agenda, which is widely credited with helping Republicans focus their message and win a historic victory.

But this time, the declaration of principles that House Minority Leader John Boehner of Ohio promised to deliver “in the months ahead” will have to play in a crowded field – one of a flurry of manifestos issued from other conservatives – including a coalition of tea party organizations.

A version of the tea party-backed “Contract from America” was unveiled this week at the Conservative Political Action Conference, the annual showcase of leaders and activists on the right. The unveiling came a day after another group – including many of the elders of conservatism – announced their own manifesto, dubbed the Mount Vernon statement after its signing at a library near George Washington’s estate.

Newt Gingrich, chief architect of the 1994 Contract with America, also has weighed in recently, publishing a memo detailing his own version of a new contract in this month’s NewsMax magazine.

The plethora of manifestos reflects a heightened energy among Republicans as they seek to maintain momentum gained from recent state victories and to convince voters that they’ve learned their lessons from their electoral pounding in 2008.

It also shows the work the GOP establishment has yet to do in uniting a still fragmented party.

Reflecting that lack of unity, former Republican House leader Dick Armey, now a leading voice of the limited government, anti-tax tea party movement, said, “A tea party contract wouldn’t be necessary if Republicans had the credibility to do it themselves. They don’t.”

Armey’s Washington-based advocacy group, FreedomWorks, has endorsed the “Contract from America,” which bills itself as the document culled from the collective wisdom of Internet activists. Its organizer, Houston attorney and tea party activist Ryan Hecker, has been soliciting policy ideas through a Web site for months and has selected 22 ideas that will be narrowed to about 10 through an online vote.

“This goal is really to be a message from the grass roots to the politicians that you have to listen to us. This is our show. You are going to be held accountable by us,” Hecker said, invoking the rhetoric of the movement increasingly viewed as the key constituency for GOP success in November.

Many of the top-rated suggestions on Hecker’s site, www.contractfrom america.com, might be difficult for many mainstream Republicans and moderate voters to swallow: abolishing the Department of Education, dismantling the IRS and establishing an official U.S. language.

The shortened version distributed this week was edited with an eye toward making the goals more palatable and marketable reforms. For instance, on education, the new contract proposed to “give parents more choices in the education of their children.” On reforming Washington, the ideas included making bills public seven days before a vote and “demanding a balanced budget.”

Most Republicans, and even many Democrats, could embrace those ideas. And the often-divisive issue of immigration didn’t make the list.

Conservatives behind the Mount Vernon statement were also keen on this approach. The statement, which organizers linked to the so-called Sharon Statement signed at the home of William F. Buckley in 1960, was a reassertion of constitutional conservatism.

It was signed, under the watchful eye of a George Washington impersonator, by several prominent and well-connected Washington insiders led by former Attorney General Edwin Meese and Heritage Foundation President Edwin Feulner Jr., who even in a moment of solidarity betrayed frustration with the Republican Party.

Asked if Republicans in Congress were conservatives, Feulner dodged the question. “We’ll see if they sign the statement,” he said.

California Republican Kevin McCarthy, who is overseeing the House Republicans’ project, said he wasn’t certain that their new contract – which he prefers to call a “commitment” – would point to specific legislation, a sign it may be taking the broader approach of the Mount Vernon statement. Taking a cue from the tea partiers, he said the document will be written with the help of input from Web sites, town halls, perhaps even an iPhone application.

“It’s not going to be written in Washington. It’s not a Republican platform,” he said. “This is part of a roadmap back to showing how we are going to find solutions. This isn’t about Republicans getting the majority, it’s about saving America.”

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