With its hopes of retaking both chambers of Congress suddenly in tatters, the Republican Party is dusting off one of its oldest moves: resuscitating an idea that worked to great effect in some bygone era in the hopes that it will work again.
On Tuesday, Axios reported that House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy made the fateful decision that it was time to finally let voters know what it was, exactly, that the Republican Party would do if it retook the House. To that end, he unleashed an updated version of Newt Gingrich’s famed “Contract With America,” which in 1994 helped the GOP win back control of the House of Representatives for the first time in 40 years.
Because “Contract” was taken, McCarthy reached for his Roget’s and settled on “Commitment to America” as the title of this latest pamphlet, in the hopes that he could take the whip hand in actually cluing voters in on what the GOP will do if elected and underscoring the extent to which it was a commitment. “If you’re just running on anti-Biden, well, that’s not going to get you over the finish line,” Republican Representative Don Bacon told Axios. “It’s going to change, a little bit, the tenor of the conversations out there.”
And the tenor of the conversations isn’t going to know what hit it. The new McCarthyism is built on four pillars: the economy, national security, whatever “anti-wokeness” happens to mean at any given moment, and the promise of relentless Benghazi-like investigations into the Biden administration. (So there’s a touch of the old McCarthyism as well.) McCarthy’s hope is that throwing some substance (or some substance-like substance) into the discourse might help the GOP retake some midterm momentum. But the agenda itself—which won’t be formally unveiled until September 19—reeks of desperation and only underscores the Republican Party’s biggest problem heading into the midterm elections: its utter lack of viable, noninsane policy ideas.
Speaking to reporters in January, Mitch McConnell was asked a simple question: If Republicans won both chambers of Congress—as it then looked as though they were all but certain to—what would they do? “That is a very good question,” the Senate Minority Leader responded. “I’ll let you know when we take it back.”
It wasn’t a particularly surprising response given the party’s noteworthy abandonment of policy ambitions. A month earlier, McConnell had told donors more or less the same thing, insisting that telling voters what Republicans would do if elected was a massive strategic blunder: The best thing to do, he argued, was just to hammer Democrats.
This was, at the time and for much of 2022, a sound strategy. The Democrats were, as is their wont, very much in disarray: Joe Biden’s legislative agenda had stalled out, leaving the party with an anemic list of accomplishments on which to campaign. Inflation was bad and getting worse, with no end in sight; many were predicting an imminent recession. A new Covid variant, moreover, had just emerged, causing chaos, hospitalizations, and death across the country—and preventing the Biden administration from saying that it had fulfilled its core 2020 campaign promise, that it would end the pandemic and return the country to normalcy. For the first half of the year, Republicans battered their rivals on all these fronts. And they also used a kind of sleight of hand, obscuring the fact that they had no real solutions to any of these problems, nor any intention to gin any up.
That the “Commitment to America” exists is evidence that the GOP believes this approach has either failed or is no longer applicable. Indeed, much has changed: After the Dobbs ruling unleashed a litany of unpopular outcomes—kicking off a summer in which new revelations about the extent of Donald Trump’s efforts to illegally overturn the 2020 election seem to hit the front pages on a weekly basis—Democrats rallied with some unexpected legislative accomplishments. The GOP suddenly found itself steadily losing ground, both in the so-called generic ballot—which tracks which party voters would prefer to have control of Congress—and in several key swing-state races.
The “Commitment to America” is, at least in theory, an effort to reintroduce Republicans to voters. But it’s also McCarthy’s pet project. As Axios reported in December of last year, McCarthy “is a ‘Contract with America’ guy.” Back in December, McCarthy “told his colleagues he thinks it’s important they tell voters what they support—not just what they oppose. He wants to release a legislative agenda to unite the conference ahead of the midterms, according to sources with direct knowledge of his caucus statements.” Now he finally has his chance, not coincidentally at a moment when he also has to demonstrate his value to a caucus that might drum him out of his leadership role if he doesn’t demonstrate some MAGA purity.
But the result is underwhelming. While Kevin McCarthy can take credit for having avoided the mistake made by Florida Senator Rick Scott—who (incompetently) heads the National Republican Senatorial Committee (and who apparently harbors presidential aspirations)—when he attempted to release his own version of the Contract With America earlier this year. Scott’s iteration made a cardinal mistake: It told voters a little too much about what Republicans wanted to do: namely, raise taxes on the poor and gut Medicare and Social Security. McCarthy’s, by contrast, goes down easier, but to achieve that, he sacrifices a lot of coherence.
Its section on “accountability,” for instance, largely focuses on the fact that Democrats haven’t permitted Congress to launch a lot of bogus investigations: It winkingly notes that Democrats have blocked requests for documents without naming the underlying case—get ready for lots of investigations into Hunter Biden, I guess! From there, it quickly devolves into standard-issue Tucker Carlson primetime talking points: Tech companies are censoring conservatives! Some banks don’t want to lend money to gun dealers! The horror!
But McCarthy’s manifesto is anchored to the party’s extremist agenda. While Dobbs isn’t mentioned, McCarthy pledges to “defend the unborn, fight for life, and protect Supreme Court justices and pro-life organizations targeted by destruction and violence,” doubling down on what has arguably been the GOP’s biggest albatross: the repeal of Roe v. Wade. Its section on voting notes, with alarm, that early voting expansion caused vote tallies to triple compared to two years earlier—fearmongering over a virtuous outcome is just a dog whistle for election deniers, as well as a demonstration that McCarthy’s “commitments” aren’t felt deeply enough to speak them aloud.
McCarthy’s economic policies involve “ending inflation”—there are no details on how this will be achieved—increased fossil fuel production, and more tax cuts for the wealthy. Its national security priorities include more military spending, the construction of Donald Trump’s border wall, and the restoration of Stephen Miller’s immigration policies. Its education, health care, and “freedom” proposals involve private school vouchers, banning trans women from participating in sports, and—I shit you not—some promised bill that would ensure that Democratic and Republican fundraising emails all get sent to spam at the same rate.
This is the biggest problem with the “Commitment to America”: There really aren’t any new commitments; it doesn’t identify a real-world problem and pair it with a plausible fix. It’s mostly posturing—and curiously equivocal posturing at that. McCarthy is doing Gingrich cosplay to promise a return to the Trump years, albeit with a few new fun twists: more fearmongering about trans people; more talk about cancel culture. Beyond that, there’s nothing new under the sun and no Reaganesque optimism for the future. It is a promise to just keep doing more xenophobia and authoritarianism because to be a leader in the GOP, you have to commit to these nihilistic ideals or some more committed nihilists will bring your promising political career to an end.