Billed as a Pledge to America, the House Republican campaign manifesto is as much political straddle as conservative call to action, long on poll-tested goals, short on controversial specifics and designed to reassure independent voters who abandoned the party in the last two elections.
“It’s not intended to be a party platform. It’s not intended to cover everything under the sun,” said House Republican leader John Boehner as he and others presented the 21-page document at a prototypical small business (hardware store) just outside the Washington Beltway (15.7 miles).
The strategy of appealing to independents while trying to hold the support of conservatives is clearest in the vow to cut spending and taxes, boost defense and put the government “on a path to a balanced budget and pay down the debt.”
No less a hero to modern-day Republicans than Ronald Reagan sought much the same thing. His tax cuts passed and the Pentagon got bigger. Deep spending cuts proved unpalatable to lawmakers, though, and deficits ballooned for a decade. Now, his conservative heirs must find potentially trillions of dollars in savings from Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.
On that, the manifesto is manifestly reticent. It calls for “setting benchmarks for these programs and reviewing them regularly, and preventing the expansion of unfunded liabilities.”
Left on the cutting room floor was a plan drawn up by Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan, who is in line to become chairman of the House Budget Committee if Republicans win a majority in the elections.
It would give workers under age 55 the option of investing part of their payroll taxes on their own, with a lower guaranteed Social Security benefit when they retire but the hope of investment gains. Better-off retirees of the future would face lower benefits than are currently guaranteed. The age at which workers could receive full benefits, scheduled to rise to 67 in 2026, would gradually go to 70 by early next century.
Asked why the Pledge To America omitted more specific recommendations on benefit programs, Boehner said, “It’s time for us as Americans to have an adult conversation with each other about the serious challenges that face our country. I don’t have all of the solutions.”
In polls and focus groups that were part of the plan’s development, according to Republicans, goals such as cutting spending, reducing the deficit, halting the growth of government and making it more responsive to the public enjoyed support among independents of at least 2-1. With the exception of a call to repeal and replace President Barack Obama’s health care law, a Republican refrain for months, items that showed mixed polling results — like Ryan’s — generally were omitted.
Nor did Republicans want to present Democrats with an easy target, they said.
A handful of conservatives, none in a position of power within the party, criticized the GOP House leadership for not going further on some issues.
Andrew Roth, a vice president at the Club for Growth, wrote that the pledge “has no teeth. Voters have no reliable assurances that House Republicans will behave appropriately.” In part, he cited the absence of a commitment to ban earmarks.
But House Republicans appear willing to accept a modest amount of such criticism in exchange for solidifying support among independents, regaining power in Congress and challenging President Barack Obama’s agenda over the next two years.
In an Associated Press-GfK poll this month, registered voters who identified themselves as political independents said they would choose a House Republican candidate over the Democrat, 52 percent to 36 percent, if the election were held now.
By contrast, in 2006, when independents cast an estimated 26 percent of all ballots, they backed the Democratic candidate in House races 57 percent to 29 percent, according to election-day interviews with voters. That coincided with the end of an era of GOP control of Congress.
Two years later, independents accounted for 29 percent of the electorate and favored Obama by 52-44 percent over Republican Sen. John McCain, according to exit polls.
To be sure, elements of the Pledge to America are taken from the playbook of traditional conservatives as well as the tea party activists whose support Republicans need this fall.
There is a promise to permanently end taxpayer funding of abortion. The ban is now subject to an annual renewal vote.
In a bow to the tea party movement, Republicans promised, “We will require that every bill contain a citation of Constitutional authority.”
But for the most part, when polling showed a conflict, Republicans sided with independents.
The Pledge to America calls for a smaller, more accountable government, but not elimination of the Department of Education, a conservative goal for more than a decade.
Republicans pledge to protect “traditional marriage,” but the document is silent on a proposed constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage.
Republicans also say they will “work with state and local officials to enforce our immigration laws.”
But there is nothing comparable to McCain’s memorable primary campaign ad stressing his plan to keep out illegal immigrants: “Build the Danged Fence.”
David Espo is AP’s chief congressional correspondent.
Copyright © 2010 The Associated Press