The contract with America did not exist before September 1994. This was a time of surprising national fragmentation. Only two months were left before the midterm elections, and all over the country, Republican candidates had built campaigns around radical anti-Washington themes. States’ rights were back. State legislatures passed Tenth Amendment resolutions. Militias were organized. We were ruled by the most unpopular President in generations. A rebellious spirit was everywhere evident. Best of all, there was no presidential candidate to swamp the hardcore message of the local candidates.

Polls in September showed the party would do very well in November. That’s when the Republican leadership began to worry that they were losing control. Working with pollster Frank Luntz, the leadership put together a document that would, as Newt Gingrich said at the time, “nationalize the message” of the party. Not a person, but a piece of paper would serve as the moderating force. The leadership got commitments from most of the candidates to sign the Contract, and in the end nearly 500 did. What could be the harm? Most of the provisions of the Contract appeared banal if unobjectionable. Certainly, few of the signers suspected the Contract might actually serve to put a lid on the radicals once the next Congress assembled and to make sure the people with a “responsible” agenda stayed in control.

The leadership hired the p.r. firm Creative Response Concepts to organize a media blitz for the Contract, complete with a national TV spot and a massive United States map. The Republican elite touted its glories and promised to enact it once elected, the Democrats denounced it, and the leadership praised it. But, in all, this was a sidelight in a series of exciting state and local elections.

Never did the Contract with America become the focal point in any grass-roots campaign. It was not examined in detail, either by the candidates or the voters. After all, the candidates weren’t making contracts with the whole country; they were making contracts with the states and their constituents. Even after the expensive Washington press conference, most candidates continued to speak on the radical antigovernment themes they had used for the past six months. Polling in December, after the Republican sweep, showed that very few voters knew or cared about the Contract. What consumed politically minded people in that month was the damnable lame-duck passage of GATT, orchestrated by the leaders of both parties.

The Contract became crucial only after Congress assembled. Suddenly it was all that mattered. Bill Kristol began throwing wet blankets on the plans of freshmen congressmen to dismantle Washington. He sent memo after memo telling everyone to calm down and stick to the Contract. “Thank God for the Contract,” Bill said more than once.

The freshmen wanted to kill congressional pensions, slash income taxes, abolish agencies, shut down buildings, wipe out whole programs, repeal gun control, repeal NAFTA, get out of GATT, scrap foreign aid, and more. It’s invigorating just to think about it. But the Contract killed all such plans. A war broke out between the radicals, the moderates, and the liberals in Republican ranks. The media ignored it and continued to pretend that the Speaker was all that mattered. All hopes of real revolution were dashed within the first week.

The Republican leaders claim they kept the promises they made. Yes, they passed the Contract, but individual candidates had promised much more: to dismantle the central state as we know it. The Contract prevented this from happening. Thus, far from celebrating its passage, we should condemn the Contract as an instrument of co-option and betrayal.

The only point in the Contract that actually helps average people (if it gets through the Senate) is the tax package, which provides a per-child tax credit of $500 for families, cuts the capital gains tax, raises the exemption on inheritance income and more (though its Social Security provisions worsened this Ponzi scheme). The rest of the Contract was either meaningless (the Tenth Amendment bill and the anti-regulation bill), unenforceable by its own language (the anti-U.N. bill), or a step in the wrong direction (it’s dumb to force Congress to obey bad civil rights laws, and the line item veto gives unconstitutional power to the Executive).

Grover Norquist tells us that the Contract will have two lasting effects. There will be another Contract “in 1996 and 1998 and on into the future” and “all congressional elections will be national elections.” That means a coercively unified party for the foreseeable future: very bad news indeed.

Let the Republican leadership “take credit” for its first 100 days. It’s a public relations gimmick to cover up for such acts as the Mexican bailout, which Gingrich and Dole orchestrated in the only memorable action of this Congress. A real American revolution will have to take place outside the Beltway.