Rick Perlstein has started writing columns again, this time for Rolling Stone, and the results have been excellent. His most recent piece is on Newt Gingrich and the Contract for America “scam.” It makes fascinating reading.
He starts (my emphasis & paragraphing; we have narrower columns here at the casa):
Newton Leroy Gingrich is one wily mothertrucker. He’s calling his presidential platform this year a “21st Century Contract With America.”
It’s a wingnutpalooza, naturally, endorsing such “timeless American values” as seeking to “establish English as the official language of government,” and reducing the corporate tax rate to 12.5 percent and the capital gains rate to zero; and featuring such “Day One Executive Orders” as the cancellation of all “immigration-related lawsuits against states” and a renewal of “President Ronald Reagan’s policy … to stop taxpayer dollars from being used to fund or promote abortions in foreign country.” . . .
The title, of course, refers to the Contract With America, which 367 Republican congressional candidates signed on the Capitol steps in September of 1994. When, two months later, the GOP took over Congress for the first time since 1952, making its architect, Newt Gingtrich, the Speaker of the House, all the world proclaimed that the electorate had just delivered a historic mandate for conservatism.
Well, not really. The Contract With America was a hustle from start to finish. It never really was about conservatism at all – practically the opposite.
Perlstein walks through the process that Gingrich used to focus-group, co-opt, and strip clean all the Perot-voter-issues he could use, in order to repackage himself and his posse as their next-gen faux-non-partisan saviors.
And it worked. Remember, Perot got 16% of the popular vote in 1992. That’s a huge pile of voters; rube-ify them and they’re yours. The article shows, in laser-like fashion, how he did just that.
The piece is a well-told tale, a nice cohesive story, so I’ll add just one more morsel, the part where the rug got pulled (again, my reparagraphing):
An extraordinary but obscure political science monograph by Ronald Rapoport and Walter Stone, Three’s a Crowd: The Dynamics of Third Parties, Ross Perot, and Republican Resurgence, reconstructed through interviews, surveys, and documents how Gingrich devised a document micro-tailored to turn at least 70 percent of Perot voters, however fleetingly, into Republicans in time for November of 1994.
“Republicans knew,” Stone and Rapoport write, “that the traditional Republican congressional campaign” – which is to say, conservatism – “would be insufficient to get this support.” This realization was the genesis of the Contract for America. … The final product comprised 44 percent “reform” issues, almost identical to the 41 percent in Perot United We Stand checklist (they had made up only 14 percent of the 1992 Republican platform).
Then, Contract in hand, the Republican Congressional Campaign Committee got to work identifying Perot voters in districts where he had done well in 1992, blitzing them with direct mail, phone calls, and door-knocking.
Once Newt gained office, the carefully worded outsider “reformist” document was rebranded the Republican Contract With America …
… as a straight-up electoral endorsement of conservatism – “the third leg of the conservative revolution in post-World War II America” that began with Barry Goldwater and the Heritage Foundation, which had been in on the planning all along.
I guess that makes us all rubes — the nation’s been buying the Republican co-option of Perotian dissent ever since. (Most of us, in fact, have forgotten Perot — wasn’t he from Argentina or something?)
A personal note — I called this the MoveCon (Movement Conservative) “project” in the headline, but it’s really the Movement Conservative coup, isn’t it.
It starts, in modern times, with people like journalist Edith Efron, Justice Lewis Powell, and Nixon Treasury secretary William Simon; plus documents like the Lewis Powell memo (same link; search on “Powell’s contribution”). You may remember Powell. He was one of the Yes votes on Buckley v Valeo, which Midas-like turned money into speech.
Perlstein now writes regularly for Rolling Stone. Well worth checking out.
As for you, Newt — your place is secure.