Too far to the Right? Or just far enough?
A Tea Party manifest it isn't. That's the immediate reaction (if you lean toward the Tea Party end of the political spectrum) that comes from reading the Republicans' new Pledge to America.
This is not a call to arms for revolutionaries. The pledge does not advocate the elimination of the Department of Energy or Department of Education (as some Republican congressional do), call for private Social Security accounts or suggest the transformation of federal entitlement programs. (Perhaps that's why the GOP's most famous incumbent reformer, Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., was nowhere to be seen when Minority Leader John Boehner and other House Republicans unveiled the pledge yesterday.)
No, this is a document designed to put forth a strong alternative to the Obama/Pelosi excesses without alienating independent voters who went with Obama in 2008 but now find themselves disillusioned. It was written not for Tea Partiers, but for Americans who, though disenchanted with Obama, still remember why they voted for him two years ago. Namely, because it was hard to have faith in the Republican Party that year. It is a document about regaining trust, and that in itself is very encouraging.
Republicans in Washington seem to be learning. Unlike the party in power at the moment, they seem to be listening, which is the first prerequisite of learning. Being Republicans, they get that they need to oppose the Democrats. Being politicians, they get that they need to oppose unpopular legislation. This pledge does those things, but it goes a little bit - not much, just a little - further. It recognizes that Americans are not just upset with the Democrats for pulling the country so far Left so quickly, but that they are just as upset with the political class in general for lying to them, misleading them, and manipulating them to stay in power.
That is not to say that John Boehner, the man who once handed out tobacco company checks on the House floor, is a born-again reformer. It is to say that Boehner and the rest of the House leadership have listened closely enough to understand that the people don't want them to simply return to their old ways. That is no guarantee that they won't, of course. But it's somewhat encouraging.
"We will launch a sustained effort to stem the relentless growth in government that has occurred over the past decade," the pledge states. That's an important phrase, "over the last decade." It acknowledges fault, as the GOP was in control of the federal government within the last decade.
The details, though, are what throw some conservative critics. Sure, the aspirational statements are fine. But what are they really going to do? Here are some highlights:
On jobs: Extend all of the Bush tax cuts; let small business owners take a tax deduction equal to 20% of their business income; require congressional approval for any regulation with an annual price tag of $100 million or more; repeal the Obamacare mandate that business purchases of more than $600 require a 1099 form.
On spending: Cut federal spending to pre-bailout levels; cap new congressional spending; cut Congress' own budget; hold weekly votes on spending cuts; cancel TARP; end federal support of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac; freeze federal hiring of non-security employees; sunset federal programs so they have to be renewed by Congress rather than continue indefinitely; have a "full accounting" of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, and refuse to expand unfunded liabilities.
On health care: Repeal Obamacare; pass tort reform; expand health savings accounts; pass laws to strengthen the doctor-patient relationship; let people purchase insurance across state lines; ensure access to care for people with pre-existing conditions; prohibit taxpayer funding of abortions.
On congressional reform: Require that every bill be posted for three days before it is voted on; require all bills to contain a provision citing the specific clause in the Constitution that authorizes the action they take; advance legislation one bill at a time and prevent members from adding unpopular legislation to must-pass bills; allow amendments that cut spending to be added to any spending bill.
On national security: forbid troop-funding bills from being slowed by unrelated add-ons; keep captured terrorists out of the United States; have foreign terrorists tried in military courts; oppose mirandizing foreign terrorists caught overseas; fully fund missile defense; require tough enforcement of sanctions against Iran; establish "operational control" of the border; work with state and local governments to enforce immigration laws; strengthen visa security.
Any conservative looking at that list should conclude that it's pretty good. It's not radical. It's not libertarian. It has flaws. It doesn't go far enough on economic growth or government reform. It doesn't even mention earmarks. And some of the changes could be easy to get around. For example, some regulations could possibly be broken into parts to avoid the $100 million congressional approval threshold. And some are contradictory. After promoting "freedom" and "liberty" and "free-markets," the document asserts that Republicans will pass some of the same costly regulations on health insurers that the Democrats passed in Obamacare.
So it's not a great document. But it's a pretty good one. And it gives Republicans a middle ground - firmly on the center-right -- to run between the Democrats' extremism on the Left and what might generally be called the Tea Party movement's more conservative activism on the Right. In other words, it's a shrewd political maneuver. It signals to the Tea Partiers that the GOP is listening, but it doesn't go so far as to alienate moderate swing voters.
On the whole, it's a solid alternative to Obamaism. The question is: will Republicans follow through if the people give them the power to turn the Pledge into reality?
Andrew Cline is editorial page editor of the New Hampshire Union Leader. His Twitter ID is Drewhampshire.