Thursday, August 28, 2008

A Libertarian Contract with America in 2010? Some backstory

George Donnelly, who did what LP national has yet to do in putting up a website dedicated to tracking our State and local candidates, has another idea.

He's interested in creating a Libertarian version of the Contract with America that Newt Gingrich used so successfully in 1994 to support our candidates in 2010.

Here's a smattering of George's intro (more designed to incite conversation than to be a close expression of his own beliefs):

The Republican Contract with America is generally believed to have not only helped the Republicans take over the House in 1994, but also put President Clinton on the defensive....

The Concept Of Accountability Was The Only Revolutionary Aspect.

But it was a real softball. The only revolutionary aspect to it was the implication that politicians might be accountable to their constituents.

Significant Pledges To Shrink Government

So, I propose a Libertarian contract with America, and one with real teeth - significant pledges to take action that will directly shrink government and increase freedom for people in these United States.

I have tentative plans to run for an Eastern Pennsylvanian Congressional seat in 2010, so this is not an academic exercise.

The Pledges

Our contract would not be a stack of limp-wristed procedural nonsense no one cares about, but instead actions that, if successful, would bring America back from the precipice it currently finds itself hanging over.

There follows George's initial attempt at a rough draft at such a contact (you'll have to go visit his site to check it out).

In this spirit, I sent George a fairly lengthy, rambling reply about the background to the original Contract with America. George suggested that I post it, so that we could hold this discussion in public for comment from anybody. Most of it follows below, but not quite all. To be honest, I fell asleep in the middle of a sentence, and when I went back and reread the last paragraph it was obvious that I was heading downhill. So I have exercised editor's privilege and dumped that part.

It's not formal, and it doesn't have a neat ending, but I think it does begin where we need to begin:

Let’s talk about an LP Contract with America [LPCon hereafter].

While I think it is a great premise, I have to start from my background as a historian, and note that your apparent disdain for how “soft” Newt’s original Contract was could be a misreading of what the Contract with America was meant to be and do, and the care with which Gingrich had it structured and promoted. So bear with me: I’m going to do a history lesson. Quite possibly you know much or all of this, but it will be new to other people we draw into the discussion.

The original Contract with America had two distinct roots: one ideological and one political, and it owed a tremendous amount of its success to a combination of fortuitous timing and a great deal of cold political calculation.

Ideological root: The Contract stemmed from the basic ideology of Gingrich’s college course “Renewing American Civilization.” Basically Gingrich crafted an historical narrative that based successful periods of American history on specific conservative values (small government, individual liberty, strong morals), and interpreted the period from the mid-1960s-1994 as an anomaly in our history—a time when we moved away from founding principles [with the exception of the Reagan years].

Gingrich developed his backstory, his faux historical narrative in smooth terms, having one sound-bite version and one more academic-sounding. He taught the course numerous times from the 1980s forward, and conceived of a multi-point strategy for disseminating those values. This is that strategy (from Nigel Hamilton’s Bill Clinton: Mastering the Presidency):

1. Knitting together trade associations and activist groups that agree the want to replace the welfare state into an active movement.

2. Developing a national news media strategy that explains the concept of renewing American civilization so reporters, editors, and citizens can understand it.

3. Getting Republican activists committed to renewing American civilization, to setting up workshops built around the course, and to opening up the party to every citizen who wants to renew American civilization.

4. Identifying, publicizing, and knitting together Republican elected officials at the city, county, and state levels who are already developing specific building blocks to transform or replace the welfare state.

5. Identify, recruit, encourage, publicize, and knit together the activists in business, community service, and government who are already instinctively applying the principles of renewing American civilization.

Eventually, some but not all of the key underlying ideas of Renewing American Civilization would go into the Contract with America, but it is important to stop and think about the overarching concept behind it. That concept was two-fold:

1. A movement between definable historical states of society: from the Welfare State to the Opportunity Society.

2. A contention that this change was non-ideological; Gingrich claimed that it was instead pragmatic—i.e., change was necessary because what we were doing (in a very nuts and bolts sense) was not working.

Let’s break away from the intellectual foundation to the political opportunity.

We tend to forget—because he so got his shit together in a political sense from 1995-2000—that Bill Clinton’s first two years in the White House were pretty much an unmitigated disaster.

1. He had only won by a plurality and there was a huge Perot vote out there that nobody could predict which way it would go; therefore Clinton had questions of political legitimacy to deal with.

2. Both his foreign policy and his economic policy were driven by committee without a strong hand either from Clinton or a chief of staff; therefore the man who had been elected on a clear campaign promise (“Putting People First”) was seen as drifting during his initial term. There was a lot of talk by 1994 that Clinton would be a one-term President.

3. The timing of the Contract with America: Gingrich announced it immediately on the heels of the defeat of Hillary-Care. Clinton still had not realized how badly he had been damaged in the health care debacle, his own party was in disarray, and as a result the GOP came out looking like the only organization in town that actually had a plan.

The takeaway here: a large measure of the success of the Contract with America had as much to do with perceptions of failure on the part of the Clinton administration and the immediate failure of the healthcare initiative. Without those aspects, the impact of the Contract would have been seriously diminished.

The Contract itself was a carefully crafted political document.

It is important to recognize that to Gingrich the Contract was never anything more than the means to an end: electing a GOP majority [in fact, he anticipated it would not bear fruit until 1996].

As such he subordinated almost all ideological concerns with the Contract to concerns of pragmatic politics; to wit:

He decreed that no item could be included in the Contract unless that item was polling with at least a 60% approval rating around the nation.

That’s why he left out abortion, school prayer, etc. As much as Gingrich wanted those things, he knew that they didn’t pass the 60% rule. When Gary Bauer came to Gingrich and demanded one of the ten planks be turned over to social conservatives, Gingrich told him no, explaining that the Contract was a vehicle to get into power, and that they’d take on those issues later. In the meantime, he hit up Bauer for $1 million to help promote the Contract.

Gingrich also had the wording of the Contract carefully tested: he didn’t want to use ideological terms like “liberals,” and he found out that to most people the term “government” included their town or county governments, which they mostly approved of. So, instead, he used the word “Washington” everywhere he could, and created the self/other dichotomy of “Washington” versus “the rest of America.”

There was significant theater involved: Gingrich got 375 GOPers on the Capitol steps with him to announce the Contract: Congressmen, Senators, and candidates.

There was massive advertising money involved: Remember the hardback book on the Contract? I probably still have a copy around somewhere.

Go back to timing: Gingrich intentionally launched the Contract in a mid-term election, because conventional wisdom is that the Party in the White House almost always loses ground in mid-terms; so even if the Contract had little effect there was a good possibility of some GOP pickup that he could claim as victory.

My point: the Contract with America was radical in terms of political theater and nationalizing the House elections for the first time in recent memory. It was not radical at all in terms of what it called for; Gingrich carefully restricted it.

So what implications to I draw regarding an LPcon?

1. The mid-term election of 2010 is the best time to use this strategy. There should generically be incumbent backlash, and we wouldn’t have major national candidates sucking all the air out of the room. Further, I predict that (a) the GOP will still not have solidified any real message; but also that (b) it is very likely that either an Obama or a McCain presidency will be in its roughest period.

2. We cannot match the numbers the Gingrich could turn out in terms of candidates, nor do we have even the faint possibility of acquiring the kind of power that comes with a House majority. The stakes we are playing for are much smaller: good percentages and maybe one or two seats actually won. However, with a properly organized recruitment campaign we could have 50, 75, or 100 candidates running on an LPcon, and if we could get a press conference image somewhere like in front of the National Constitution Center with 100 candidates behind the unveiling, we’d get press.

3. We cannot match the resources Gingrich had at his command, because we simply don’t have the money. My dream would be to have $500K in the bank and be able to give a $5000 campaign donation to every candidate who signed up; but that calls for some heft fundraising over the next two years and a centralized control I’m not sure the LP could ever muster.

4. But the most difficult conclusion I draw is that to be successful such an LPcon has to be the vehicle for winning and not the vehicle for ideology. This is certainly a real tough sell among Libertarians, who tend to see winning as selling out, or broadening the message to reach non-Libertarians as abandoning core principles. I share some of those feelings, but I am not insensible toward looking carefully and critically at tactics that could actually change the face of American society.

OK with respect to the actual LPcon, what does this mean?

First, my conceptual frame (paralleling Gingrich’s welfare to opportunity) would be something along the lines of moving from the old Cold War doctrine of containment to the Reagan doctrine of rolling back Communism. That “roll back” would be achieved either through (a) resistance to new State incursions or (b) initiating new limitations on government.

Remember, if we’re running 50 or 100 candidates we’re not even talking about a majority if everybody wins—so it is difficult to talk persuasively about what we would accomplish. But that leaves us plenty of room to talk about what we would block.

Thus there is a part of me that would phrase the whole LPcon in purely negative terms.


“We will not support any defense appropriations that do not include scaling back America’s vast overseas empire of bases by at least 50%.”

“We will not support any legislation or regulation that employs ‘Federal blackmail’ to coerce the States into adopting mandated policies like reduced speed limits, increased drinking ages, or Real ID.”

-------end of that email but lacking real end-----

excerpt from George Donnelly's reply:

I remember liking the CWA because (1) it was specific about what they would do with my vote and (2) the concept of accountability was introduced in a big way. Most candidates are vague about what they'll do and don't commit to much.

I agree with the pragmatic aspects. I don't necessarily consider running on popular issues to be pragmatic, in the negative sense of the word.

If the job of a Representative to the US Congress is to represent the interests of his/her constituency, then isn't there a certain amount of principle involved when he/she advocates for those interests?

What we can add to just advocating for perceived interests of course is some backbone and a filter that doesn't allow "bad" proposals to get through, among other things.

Kind of vague, I know. I'll work on expressing that more clearly.

Regarding fundraising, I was thinking we might want to setup a PAC, come up with some original appeals for funding (see Sean Tevis, Dem candidate for KS state house) and direct people to the PAC website where they could donate once and it would be distributed in some fashion among the candidates who have signed on.

I absolutely agree about being a vehicle for winning and not ideology or education or just earning the difference between the top 2 candidates in our races and declaring victory.

I'm a fan of Ayn Rand, so my principles are rather radical. I take the
initiation of force prohibition extremely seriously.

But I think incrementalism is the way to reach my goal. I like your idea of finding where voters are and leveraging that in order to take some small steps towards greater liberty. That is a great idea.

Do you know any good sources for that kind of polling data?

If people can't grasp that we just will not get from here to total liberty in one fell swoop then we can do this without them. I am
certain we can write a platform/contract that hits those sweet-spots without compromising principles.

The ideas in my blog post were just what occurred to me in order to get a discussion started. I'm not necessarily attached to them at the hip.

I feel strongly about social security, medicare and medicaid though. The entitlements are going to eat us alive if we don't do something about them soon.

I wonder how much support there is out there for allowing people to just opt out of social security, for example.

I wonder how much we want to tend towards taking safe-ish positions that give the glow of the CWA and instead focus our resources primarily on just campaigning well?

It's not something that inspires me especially, but we want to play this to win.

----end of George's response-----

Comments? This needs to be an ongoing discussion, here there and everywhere.


George Donnelly said...

We should also keep in mind what will fire up both LP radicals and reformers without turning off too much either caucus.

Great stuff

Arthur Torrey said...

After Barr and with all the other issues with the current LNC, I would feel FAR more comfortable with this notion if it was done independently of LPUS - I know that I won't give LPUS a dime as I don't trust them to spend it wisely - I might be persuaded to give an outside organization something....

In addition, while I agree that there is room for pragmatism along w/ principle, I think the people running such a contract would need to ensure they had some level of "principle filter" to ensure that they don't include candidates like Barr who are by at least some views "Libertarian in Name Only" - if only for the pragmatic reason that including such candidates will reduce the group's credibility and hence fundraising ability.


Alex said...

I think the contract is an excellent idea as a kind of platform for Libertarian candidates, but expectations should be kept low. A Libertarian document will obviously not have the huge appeal and impact of something introduced by a leader of a major party.
I strongly support most of the "planks" of the platform drafted here, but I believe advocating a gradual, tiered stance is going to be much more effective than proposing to simply cut everything off at once.
If such a document is ever adopted, I believe it should take a fairly moderate (in terms of Libertarian views) stance. This will appeal to a broader base, and the hard-line libertarians are already set in who they are supporting. A more moderate document could draw some support from Independents and even Democratic and Republican registered voters.
More attention need to be focused on civil liberties, this is the area of the platform that really has the most popular support, and that needs to be played up.