Newt Gingrich, the big thinker behind the Contract for America, is out with his conservative recovery plan. His theory is that conservatives should embrace 80/20 issues in a non-ideological way. That is, issues that poll at 80% approval rates or higher. (Ironic, for a party that routinely denigrates its opponents for polling everything.) Newt's 80/20 issues, packaged as The Platform of the American People, are:
- English should be the official language of government. (87 to 11)
- We want our elected leaders in Washington to focus on increasing the energy supplies of the United States and lowering the cost of gasoline and electricity. (71 to 18)
- The option of a single-rate system should give taxpayers the convenience of filing their taxes with just a single sheet of paper. (82 to 15)
- Every worker should continue to have the right to federally supervised secret ballot election when deciding whether to organize a union. (79 to 12)
- Keeping the reference to "One Nation Under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance is very important. (88 to 11)
- Congress should make it a crime to advocate acts of terrorism, violent conduct, or the killing of innocent people in the United States. (83 to 12)
- We should dramatically increase our investment in math and science education. (91 to 8)
- We believe that if research indicates we could build clean coal plants in the United States with no carbon emissions, it would be important to build such plants as rapidly as possible. (71 to 8)
- Illegal immigrants who commit felonies should be deported. (88 to 10)
- We support giving a large financial prize to the first company or individual who invents a new, safer way to dispose of nuclear waste products. (79 to 16)
For reference, the Contract with America was built on what Gingrich called "60 percent issues," issues that enjoyed 60% support in the electorate. The Contract itself was significantly longer than The Platform, with specific legislation attached. The Platform, instead, goes with poll-tested maxims that leave a great deal yet to be decided. If the Contract was the political equivalent of "Go West, Young Man," the Platform seems a more meager cry to maybe go, you know, someplace over that way.
But give Gingrich some credit: he's at least trying to revive substantive thought processes in a Republican Party that seems left, post Bush, with little but snide irrelevancies. In picking issues with overwhelming popular support (at least, depending on the way the poll questions are phrased) he has limited the range of what he can advocate, but he's at least tugging Republicans away from the losing issues that define today's party. (For example, abortion.)
Let's look down the list and see what we've got, rating each initiative on a one-to-ten scale for both policy impact and political value:
- English as the official language of government -- This is, I think, a crafty retreat from standard "English only" orthodoxy, in that it leaves the private sector and perhaps even the schools to decide for themselves how they're going to approach the multi-lingual world. I'm guessing this is an attempt to moderate the party's stand while keeping the English-only people on board. Political value: 8. Policy impact: 2, since English is already the official language of American government.
- Domestic energy/lowering the cost of gasoline and electricity -- Again, this seems purposefully vague, since "increasing the energy supplies" could mean anything from drilling in ANWAR to building wind farms in South Dakota. Still, it continues Republican orthodoxy of thinking entirely of increasing production and ignoring the huge gains that can be made in conservation. As for lowering gas prices, that is entirely a function of the world market. Cheaper electricity would be nice, though. Political value: 5, though lower now with low gas prices, it'll go up as the world economy recovers and demand for petroleum rises. Policy impact: 0, since everything in this is dependent on the specifics.
- Single-rate tax system: The flat tax has been the conservative Holy Grail for a long time, pursued in fits and starts by both Democrats and Republicans. The popularity of a flat tax is entirely dependent on how the poll question is phrased. Talk fairness and simplicity, and people love it. Talk raising lower- and middle-income tax rates in order to cut the taxes of the wealthy, and the issue becomes less popular. Political value: 3. Policy impact: 10.
- Secret ballot on unionization -- This particular Conservative talking point enjoys overwhelming support but is important to almost no one. Political value: 3. Policy impact: 0.
- One Nation Under God -- You've got to throw the cultural conservatives something, so throw them this, since there's no one on the other side who cares even a little bit. Political value: 6. Policy impact: 0.
- Make advocating terrorism a crime -- Um, OK. Planning to commit terrorism or violence is already a crime, but banning the advocacy of something is problematic from a First Amendment standpoint. Is this a significant issue? Political value: 3, perhaps more important with certain segments of the Republican base. Policy impact: 2, but I'm only giving it that much because I'm tired of writing "0".
- Math and science education -- Part of the value of a manifesto is differentiation. Show of hands: who's in favor of spending less on math and science education. Anyone? Anyone at all? Of course not. So this doesn't differentiate at all. It also ducks the big issues of education, one of which is the conservative panacea of vouchers and choice. And, come to think of it, it's kind of a leap from the traditional conservative antipathy to involving the federal government in education. Political value: 4. Policy impact: 5, because it might provide some common ground with Dems to do something productive.
- Clean coal -- Am I reading this right? Is Gingrich really saying that clean coal plants should only be built if the meet a zero-carbon standard? Newt the Green? Pardon me if I'm suspicious that there's some kind of clever double-cross lurking in the language of this particular Platform plank. On it's face, though, it seems a major move to the middle. Political value: 6. Policy impact: 3, because I'm guessing zero-carbon coal is an economic non-starter, particularly if government is already set on lowering the price of petroleum and electricity.
- Deporting felonious illegal immigrants -- Don't we do that now? Why, yes, we do. We also deport illegal immigrants for committing misdemeanors, including the simple act of being an illegal immigrant. Political value: 6. Policy impact: 0.
- Prize for making nuke waste less horrible -- Make it a billion dollars. Make it 10 billion. Who cares? What Newt should be calling for is the development of more nuclear plants. Lots of them. The disposal of nuclear waste is a political, not a scientific, problem. We need to tell Nevada to shut-up and get out of the way. Political value: 0. Policy impact: 0.
This is, all in all, pretty weak tea. Newt's on to something in general, which is that Republicans need to find some issues that align with both their deeply held beliefs and the public's idea of where this country needs to go. But he needs to find stronger issues, or to attack the issues he has found more directly.
What this is is a re-wrap of the Republican Party's greatest hits, with some of the rough edges filed down. The brilliance of the Contract With America is that it was a set of specific policies that a Republican Congress would put into place immediately upon taking office, if elected. So we elected tham. This, on the other hand, is largely a document of tendency, of the things we think we might like to do maybe a little.
Back to the drawing board, Newt. But at least you go tthe conversation started.