09.22.10

The GOP's Purity Pledge

Sixteen years after the Contract With America comes its bastard child—the Pledge to America, an attempt by the party establishment to rein in the Tea Party and reassure us the elders are still in charge.

The Republican Party is at it again, nicking its own thumb with a keen pen-knife and offering up a Boy Scout promise to be good—improbably, paradigmatically good.

Sixteen years ago, we got a Contract With America, legalistic window-dressing for a promise to take ideological positions that were at bellicose odds with the first Clinton administration. It was, to be sure, an invigorating promise, but the execution of the promise was an unforgettable, obstructive disaster: The GOP, which became the Gingrich Obstructionist Party, was hoist with its own pseudo-contractual petard. Not to “shut down” government would have been in breach of contract, so they shut government down, and paid a price from which the party has not fully recovered.

This is a pledge designed to reassure us that we are back to Republican business as usual, to reassure us that the Republican Party elders are still in charge, even as Tea Party philistines clamor angrily at the hedgerow.

Now, 16 years later, we have the bastard child of that Contract With America, dubbed, with a timorous desire to soften any unpleasantness of echo from 1994, the Pledge to America. From a Republican perspective, the blousy new name is a bad idea strategically, and rhetorically: It encourages one to ask why the Republican Party has fought shy of reprising the Contract theme. Are they embarrassed by their Gingrichist past? Are they eager to keep in purdah the calamitously degenerated former House speaker, now a mere (and unsavory) shadow of the revolutionary he was in his heyday 16 years ago? Are they afraid to revive echoes from their last, full-frontal, but ultimately backfiring, assault on a wobbly first-term president?

More broadly, one has to wonder whether this whole Pledge business is an attempt by the Republican Party establishment to impose hasty order on its rightward, Tea Party flank, which has threatened to pull the GOP into uncharted populist territory—territory that many independents might find daunting, and off-putting. By setting up a Pledge—a checklist, in effect, of what is or isn’t Republican—the GOP must hope to quiet the discontent among those who bucked the party line and voted (in the primaries) for the likes of Christine O’Donnell. The party is saying to its purists, in effect, that it has a Purity Test.

Much more amusing, for sure, and possibly quite deadly, would have been a Republican campaign that accused the Democrats of taking out a Contract on America, designed to kill off the country’s entrepreneurial spirit domestically, not to mention any sense of American exceptionalism abroad. Maybe that will come once the Pledge has been unveiled.

But the GOP is profoundly spooked by the ascent of the Tea Party and wants to ensure that no one will ever mistake Republicans for a rabble unfit to govern. So the party has decreed that it’s time for a message that has been approved... by the party—by John Boehner, Mitch McConnell, et al.—a manifesto that bears a Republican National Committee imprimatur.

This is a pledge designed to reassure us that we are back to Republican business as usual, to reassure us that the Republican Party elders are still in charge, even as Tea Party philistines clamor angrily at the hedgerow. The rebels, we are now assured, have been domesticated by institutional reason and good sense. The Tea Party wanted a Declaration of War. What it has got is a Pledge. The natural order has reasserted itself.

Tunku Varadarajan is a national affairs correspondent and writer at large for The Daily Beast. He is also the Virginia Hobbs Carpenter Fellow in Journalism at Stanford's Hoover Institution and a professor at NYU's Stern Business School. He is a former assistant managing editor at The Wall Street Journal. (Follow him on Twitter here.)