There’s one big lesson from Donald Trump’s career in business: Think twice before making a deal with him. The former president is notorious for refusing to pay people, ranging from drapiers and cabinetmakers to plumbers and chauffeurs, for the goods and services that they provide. Trump fought hundreds of lawsuits in court over refusing to pay contractors for his hotels, casinos, and other endeavors throughout his career. He even fought with the lawyers who represented him in those cases over not paying their legal fees.
That history should give voters pause when considering reports about his latest venture: a reboot of the “Contract With America” agenda that helped Republicans take the House of Representatives in 1994. According to Politico, Trump is “crafting a policy agenda outlining a MAGA doctrine” for the Republican Party. Among those helping him are Newt Gingrich, who masterminded the original 1994 agenda, as well as devout loyalists like Mark Meadows and Lindsey Graham.
What would be in this policy agenda? It’s still being crafted, and Politico offered few concrete details. The news outlet reported that Contract 2.0 was “likely to take an ‘America-First’ policy approach on everything from trade to immigration,” while Gingrich told them it would be a “positive” agenda. “School choice, teaching American history for real, abolishing the ‘1619 Project,’ eliminating critical race theory and what the Texas legislature is doing,” he said. “We should say, ‘Bring it on.’”
It’s hard to know where to begin here. First, it’s almost comedic that Trump is adopting such a plan right now. When Gingrich and his allies drafted the original Contract With America in 1994, Republicans hadn’t held the House of Representatives for more than 40 years. The GOP had just finished a 12-year run in the White House, so it’s not like they were in the political wilderness. But they also had genuine room to propose policies and ideas that weren’t previously feasible under that chamber’s long Democratic majority.
Trump, by comparison, was literally the president of the United States four months ago. If voters want to know what he would do in power, they could relive the last four years of their lives. Holding the White House doesn’t guarantee that you’ll be able to enact all your hopes and dreams, of course. Joe Biden is proving that for progressives as we speak. But Trump also entered office in 2017 with healthy working majorities in both chambers of Congress and held them for the first two years of his presidency. It’s a little late for Trump suddenly to show interest in crafting a bold legislative agenda. It’s like trying out for a college football team after you’ve already graduated.
Second, consider the paucity of actual ideas here compared to its predecessor. When Republicans unveiled the Contract With America, they included genuine social and economic policy ideas. The contract proposed changes to the tax code, cuts to welfare programs and work requirements for those in them, more funding for prisons and stricter sentencing requirements, a capital-gains tax cut and limits for product liability, changes to Social Security, and much more. Much of this is anathema for progressives. But say what you will about the tenets of the Contract With America, at least it’s a governing ethos.
“If the American people accept this contract, we will have begun the journey to renew American civilization,” Newt Gingrich said at a 1994 event where the contract was unveiled. “Together we can renew America. Together we can help every American fulfill their unalienable right to pursue happiness and to seek the American dream. Together we can help every human across the planet seek freedom, prosperity, safety, and the rule of law. That is what is at stake.”
Compare those lofty ambitions and substantive proposals with what Gingrich outlined for Politico this week. “School choice” is hardly a novel GOP platform plank. “Critical race theory” and “teaching American history for real” are apparent references to conservatives’ culture war against less-than-rosy accounts of American history, particularly where the treatment of Black and Native Americans is involved. “Abolishing” the 1619 Project, a controversial New York Times endeavor that seeks to reorient America’s origin story around the history of American slavery, isn’t really something that Congress or the White House can do.
That just leaves “what the Texas Legislature is doing.” The most generous interpretation of this statement is that Gingrich meant the federal government should adopt the same approach to basic governance as the Lone Star State: low taxes for wealthy residents and low regulation for businesses. Since Gingrich mentioned it alongside other heaping portions of red meat for the culture wars, he could also mean allowing Texans to carry firearms without permits, enacting near-total bans on abortion, writing bills to decide when transgender children can play sports, and other things that fire up conservative activists and media outlets.
It’s not new or exciting to note that the Republican Party has largely abandoned basic governance. Most conservative lawmakers and organizations spend their time waging culture-war battles, passing will-to-power bills that undermine voting rights and legitimate elections, and trying to own the libs on Twitter. The best example came last year, when the GOP didn’t bother writing a new policy platform at its national convention and adopted the 2016 version without updates. A Trump-drafted sequel to the Contract With America that doesn’t even try to address substantive problems in Americans’ lives would only underscore the point.
Then again, this isn’t the first time that Republicans have tried to recapture the spirit of ’94. In 2010, House Republican leaders announced what they called the “Pledge to America,” ahead of that year’s midterms. It also did not bother to address most Americans’ hardships in the midst of a major economic downturn. Instead, it focused on things that would please donors and their base: repealing the Affordable Care Act, preserving the Bush tax cuts for rich Americans, keeping Guantánamo Bay open, freezing government spending, and so on. From these meager efforts, it’s only a few steps to a vain, shallow exercise in political messaging. In that way, Trump’s rebooted Contract With America could end up representing the Republican Party’s vision better than anything else could.