We all understand that Donald Trump wants to maintain control over the Republican Party for the foreseeable future, which means he has to find some way to keep himself in the spotlight during the 2022 midterm elections. He may even vaguely grasp that avenging his 2020 defeat by pretending it didn’t happen is an insufficient agenda for the GOP. In any event, he has decided to authorize some sort of messaging document to place his stamp on the midterms. For assistance with this effort, he is consulting the all-time reigning huckster of such symbolic efforts, former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich, whose 1994 “Contract With America” earned all sorts of undeserved credit for the GOP conquest of the House that year. Politico has the eye-rolling story:
With an eye toward winning back the House and Senate in the 2022 midterm elections, former President Donald Trump has begun crafting a policy agenda outlining a MAGA doctrine for the party. His template is the 1994 “Contract with America,” a legislative agenda released ahead of the midterm elections in the middle of President Bill Clinton’s first term. And, as a cherry on top, he’s teaming up with its main architect — Gingrich — to do it.
Apparently, two other veteran hucksters, Lindsey Graham and Mark Meadows, are in on the project. But for the moment, words like “agenda,” “policy,” and even “document” should be put in quotes, and anything suggesting that Trump is working on actionable ideas should be rigorously fact-checked. After all, the 45th president knows as much about policy thinking as a three-toed sloth knows about the Critique of Pure Reason. And I suspect he’s reaching out to Gingrich not because of the former speaker’s thin reputation for intellectualism but precisely because Newt won that reputation by skillful packaging and marketing of poll-tested slogans that were policy adjacent.
Yes, the Contract With America included some specifics like Congress applying its laws to its own operations, a balanced-budget constitutional amendment, and congressional term limits. But it excluded plenty of top-tier Republican legislative proposals that weren’t terribly popular, and it batched loosely connected policy bites under catchy headlines like “The Take Back the Streets Act” (random provisions conveying a get-tough-on-crime attitude) and “The Senior Citizens Fairness Act” (really just eliminating taxes on Social Security benefits).
As the involvement in the effort by word-meister Frank Luntz suggests, the meta-message of the contract was the idea of a contract and hence “accountability.” Beyond that, the details were largely disposable. It reflected Gingrich’s own identification with the idea of ideas more than with actual ideas. And the attribution of the 1994 victory to the contract is undercut by (a) the fact that the contract wasn’t unveiled until late in the cycle, (b) the Republican victories in Senate and state elections that had nothing to do with it, and (c) the many other factors contributing to the “Republican Revolution,” including redistricting, Democratic retirements, and a long-overdue reckoning for the party that had controlled the House since 1954.
The alleged genius of the contract (and of Gingrich) was also refuted more than a bit by the travails of the GOP in power. Newt’s great nemesis Bill Clinton was easily reelected two years later, and four years later Republicans became the first non–White House party since 1934 to lose House seats in a midterm election, leading to Gingrich’s forced resignation as speaker (and as a House member).
But at this stage of their careers, neither Gingrich nor Trump is likely thinking long-term. Both men went off the rails into extremism during the past decade: Gingrich in preparation for a failed 2012 presidential bid and Trump more successfully in 2016 and 2020. You do wonder how savage and culture-war-centric the new contract, which will supposedly have America First thematics, could wind up being. Gingrich offered some thoughts:
“It should be positive,” Gingrich said. “School choice, teaching American history for real, abolishing the ‘1619 Project,’ eliminating critical race theory and what the Texas legislature is doing. We should say, ‘Bring it on.’”
Gingrich said it shouldn’t be expected until closer to the midterm elections because “the world keeps changing and evolving.”
p class=”clay-paragraph” data-editable=”text” data-uri=”nymag.com/intelligencer/_components/clay-paragraph/instances/ckp5tzkk5002h3h6gdzcjvp5e@published” data-word-count=”31″>Yeah, and so do polls. But hey, there’s nothing more substantive, is there, than “abolishing the ‘1619 project’”? Unless it’s combating “voter fraud,” which I am sure Trump will insist upon.
p class=”clay-paragraph” data-editable=”text” data-uri=”nymag.com/intelligencer/_components/clay-paragraph/instances/ckp5u24pj002n3h6gpm3tm6s0@published” data-word-count=”9″>Expect the worst when these two frauds get together.