September 26, 2010


Is the 'Pledge to America' a worthy successor to the 'Contract With America'? (Frank I. Luntz, September 26, 2010, Washington Post)

So, how does the Pledge stack up against the Contract -- and might it lead to similar success? Let's break them down, point by point.

First, their names: "A Pledge to America" vs. the "Contract With America." I have to give the edge to the 1994 version, though I have an even better word. Nobody trusts political promises or politicians' pledges, but a "commitment" suggests seriousness and a willingness to put your reputation on the line. I conducted polls on this wording this year, and an overwhelming 81 percent of Americans preferred a "commitment," while just 10 percent chose a "promise" and only 9 percent a "pledge."

The American people in 2010, above all else, want politicians to demonstrate that Washington works for America, not the other way around. The full-page, double-sided, tear-out ad for the Contract With America that ran in TV Guide in October 1994 did just that, featuring two simple but powerful sentences: "A campaign promise is one thing. A signed contract is quite another." The authors of the 2010 document could have done better than "pledge."

Second, let's look at the documents' bipartisan appeal. The words "Clinton" and "Democrat" were missing from the 1994 Contract and the TV Guide ad for a reason. Late at night on Sept. 25, 1994, I sat at a computer at the Republican National Committee and removed the draft Contract's four remaining references to Clinton and the Democrats because voters were crying out for a nonpartisan approach to governing.

The 2010 Pledge is more overtly critical of the Democrats in Congress and the White House, but more important, it is considerably more anti-government in its language. Calling Washington a "red tape factory" conjures a compelling visual, and suggesting that the priorities of the people "have been ignored, even mocked by the powers-that-be in Washington" is just the sort of red-meat rhetoric that fires up the grass roots. But the most passionate descriptor in the document, "an arrogant and out-of-touch government of self-appointed elites," hits exactly what independents think. Independents determine who wins elections, so on that score, the Pledge beats the Contract.

Third, the opening lines. Here, the Pledge wins hands down. "America is more than a country" is a simple but profound statement that says so much in just a few words. By comparison, the Contract began with language that sounded like it was spoken by Sir Lawrence Olivier in some film about Shakespeare: "As Republican Members of the House of Representatives and as citizens seeking to join that body we propose not just to change its policies, but even more important, to restore the bonds of trust between the people and their elected representatives." Any sentence that has more than 40 words cannot possibly be effective. And frankly, any opening sentence that includes the word "Republican" is spring-loaded for failure. This year, the authors of the Pledge understand that it's not about them, the Republicans; it's about you, the American people. Once again, the Pledge wins.

Fourth, the specifics. The Contract offered a detailed course of action. In fact, it proposed eight major reforms, including the first independent audit of Congress and a cut in the congressional budget and staffing, that House members promised to pass (and did) on their very first day in office. The Pledge has no equivalent -- a glaring omission.

The problem is that these guys know they're going to win, so what they commit to matters. In 1994 they'd have said anything just in hopes of winning.

Posted by Orrin Judd at September 26, 2010 8:40 AM
blog comments powered by Disqus