By Michael Hirsh
Rep. Kevin McCarthy laughs at the idea that he’s trying to resurrect the “Contract With America.” “No sequel, outside of The Godfather II, ever did better than the original,” he jokes. But the second-term congressman from Bakers-field, Calif., a sunny salt-of-the-earth type who used to run a sandwich shop, has been tasked with orchestrating the next Republican revolution. So he’s doing his best to learn from the last one. McCarthy’s project has a slightly different name—the “Commitment to -America”—but his mission is essentially the same as the one pursued by GOP revolutionaries in 1994: to come up with a simple program for action that will redefine the Republican Party and bring it back to power.
“One of the things I first did, I went back and talked to everybody” involved with the 1994 campaign, says McCarthy, one of the party’s self-described “young guns.” Newt Gingrich, the mastermind of the ’94 GOP takeover of the House, was at the top of his list. McCarthy wanted to hear how he might repeat Gingrich’s success, but without seeming like a tiresome impersonator. “This is a different world,” says Gingrich. “Every dance has its own rules. The anger is much greater now than it was before. People are tired of the whole process in Washington.”
There are, it is true, unmistakable similarities between the two eras. The Republican leaders who designed the “Contract With America”—a 10-point program that included a constitutional amendment for a balanced budget—sought to -capitalize on a broad disgust with Washington, reflected at the time in the 19 percent vote that third-party presidential candidate Ross Perot won in 1992. Then, as now, the Republicans were trying to exploit a backlash against big government. It was Hillarycare in ’94; now it’s Obamacare.
But even as McCarthy seeks to recapture the mojo of ’94, he and other Republicans recognize that the differences between now and then are probably much greater than the similarities. For starters, says former House majority leader Dick Armey, a key member of the Gingrich contract team, “in ’94 we didn’t have a single person in America that could remember having been disappointed [by] a Republican majority” in the House. (At the time, Republicans hadn’t controlled the House in 39 years.) “Then we just had to say, ‘We’re not them.’ Now we have to say, ‘We’re not them—and by the way, we’re not the same Republicans who just broke your heart a few years ago.’?” It’s a sign of the tougher new environment that Republicans have failed so far to exploit fully the -antigovernment rage behind the tea-party movement: even Ron Paul, the libertarian congressman who has made his name fighting big government, is seen as too inside the Beltway by some tea partiers.
It was no surprise to anyone when, late last year, House Minority Leader John Boehner assigned McCarthy, the Republican deputy whip, to de-sign a new program to help the GOP overcome its reputation as “the party of no.” While McCarthy is not as intellectual as Gingrich, a former college professor, the 45-year-old former fireman can display an almost Gingrichian wonkishness and creativity. (He just flew out to Seattle to talk with Microsoft executives about adapting software that NASA uses to map the moon in order to map the new political landscape.) Gingrich’s spokesman, Rick Tyler, says, “If you were going to franchise Newt like McDonald’s, McCarthy would be the flagship restaurant. He completely spills over with ideas…He knows districts around the country from memory.”
Still, no one in the GOP today can really fill the outsize role of Gingrich (as McCarthy is the first to admit). In ’94 Gingrich “became the golden arches,” says Rich Galen, Gingrich’s former spokesman. “All you had to say was ‘Newt Gingrich’ and everything followed from that. Neither Boehner nor [Republican Senate leader Mitch] McConnell nor anybody else has been a Gingrich. They don’t have the intelligence or the capacity. That is probably the biggest difference between 2010 and 1994.”
Not even Newt is Newt anymore. An older and grayer Gingrich is still around, and still angling to define the GOP agenda on his own. But he’s out of office and sapped of the influence he once had. Armey, head of an activist group called FreedomWorks, is -himself endorsing an alternative grassroots approach he’s calling the Contract From America. “Bless their hearts,” he says of McCarthy and Boehner. “They’re making a good effort. But I don’t think the political space is there for them to offer a contract.”