Republicans have unveiled a midterm election agenda based heavily on criticism of Joe Biden, but light on specific policies — and themed back to the mid-1990s.
After a primary season dominated by extremist “Make America great again” (Maga) candidates and deniers of the 2020 election result, Friday’s launch also marked an effort to tone down the rhetoric and win back independent voters.
House minority leader Kevin McCarthy introduced the party’s “Commitment to America” at an event near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, a pivotal battleground in the November vote.
The memo of principles underlined how Republicans hope to turn the midterm elections into a referendum on Biden’s presidency rather than his predecessor, Donald Trump, who continues to suck media oxygen as the target of various criminal and civil investigations.
“I challenge the president to join us — let’s go across the country and discuss what his policies have done to America and our plan for a new direction,” McCarthy told supporters. “And let’s let America decide the best way for this country to move forward.”
The one-page pledge contained inevitable echoes of the “Contract With America,” a 1994 statement of intent that helped Newt Gingrich Republicans gain the House majority during Bill Clinton’s presidency, for the first time in more than four decades. But McCarthy’s version offered less detail and, critics said, less ambition.
The defining message was that the Democrats have failed the American people. McCarthy, who hopes to replace Nancy Pelosi as Speaker of the House, said: “The Democrats, they control Washington. They control the House, the Senate, the White House. They control the committees, they control the agencies. It’s their plan, but they don’t have a plan to solve all the problems they’ve created.”
McCarthy pulled a leaflet from his jacket pocket and added, “So you know what? We have created a bond with America.”
The four pillars are “an economy that is strong”, “a nation that is secure”, “a future that is free” and “a government that is accountable”.
The first point reflects Republicans’ hopes that stubbornly high inflation will lead voters to punish Democrats on Election Day.
McCarthy said a strong economy means “you can fill your tank, you can run errands, you have enough money left over to go to Disneyland and save for a future – paychecks are growing; they don’t shrink anymore.”
A safe nation, he added, “means your community will be protected, your law enforcement will be respected, and your criminals will be prosecuted.”
McCarthy also highlighted the scourge of the opioid fentanyl and the need to secure the US-Mexico border, an issue recently dominated by a stunt in which Florida Governor Ron DeSantis relocated migrants to Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts.
Indeed, Friday’s launch was notable for what McCarthy wasn’t talking about: abortion rights, voting rights and the climate crisis, all of which are seen as political commitments to his party. Democrats have been energized by the Supreme Court’s decision in June to override the constitutional right to abortion.
McCarthy tried to project party unity despite the uneasy coalition that makes up the House minority. It remains uncertain whether the House Freedom Caucus, including far-right members loyal to Trump, will support McCarthy as a speaker.
Democrats rejected the Commitment to America as a Trump platform in disguise. Pelosi said, “Today’s rollout is the latest proof of the House Republicans’ sincere commitment to Maga: going all-in on an extremist agenda designed to greatly diminish the health, freedom and security of Americans.”
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer released a list of eight questions Democrats have for Republicans about their platform. It was aimed at the fervent defense of Trump by many members of the House.
“Who Won the 2020 Presidential Election?” asks the list. “Like President Trump, do you believe that the January 6 insurgents engaged in ‘legitimate political discourse’ and should not be prosecuted for their violent actions? … Do you support cutting the FBI funding in retaliation for executing a search warrant in Mar-a-Lago?”
The list also interferes with other Republican policies. Hoyer asked, “Will Republicans push for a nationwide abortion ban?… If given the chance, will you try again to repeal the Affordable Care Act and deprive millions of Americans of access to health care?”
Others joined the criticism. Reed Galen, co-founder of the Lincoln Project, an anti-Trump group, said: “This agenda is pointless. Kevin McCarthy wants everyone to think he has a positive agenda for America – which is no less true.
“The ultra-Maga has complete control of the party and is only interested in a national abortion ban and the impeachment of Joe Biden. The GOP is no longer interested in governing, they just want to gain power and use it to destroy their enemies.”
McCarthy’s initiative stands in stark contrast to the Senate, where the minority leader, Mitch McConnell, has refused to put forward an agenda, preferring to simply go against Biden.
Republicans remain the favorites to win back the House and have history on their side: Since World War II, the president’s party has lost an average of 29 seats in the House in each president’s first midterm elections, according to the Council on Foreign Relations.