And Now, The Uncontract With America

The Dems craft their own bid to lure back the middle class

Whatever you call congressional Democrats' 1996 campaign blueprint, scheduled to be unveiled this summer, don't label it their version of the GOP Contract With America. "It's the exact opposite approach," insists Representative Rosa L. DeLauro (D-Conn.). "This isn't being decided by pollsters. And we aren't going to sign something on the Capitol steps."

Perhaps "the Uncontract," then? Borrowing liberally from House Speaker Newt Gingrich's 1994 notion of having GOP candidates run on a single unifying set of policy commitments, Democrats are putting together a similar type of document--one they hope will propel them back to power after two years of aimless wandering on Capitol Hill. "We are anxious to show people we've learned from the experience of being rejected," says House Democratic Caucus Chairman Vic Fazio (D-Calif.).

TOWN HALL TALKS. For the ploy to succeed, Democrats must assure middle-class swing voters that its liberal wing is ready to shift from an ardent defense of the welfare state to purposeful reform of Great Society programs. The Uncontract's chief architect, House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.), hopes that a pledge to pursue centrist policies will convince voters that the Democrats have finally forsaken social engineering and income leveling. The new agenda "needs to be moderate, modest, and feasible," he says. "It needs to be something families will see in their everyday lives." Democrats will discuss elements of the blueprint at June 23 town-hall meetings around the U.S. A final plan will be completed in the ensuing weeks.

The platform will contain such traditional Democratic nostrums as protecting workers and preserving entitlements such as Medicare and Social Security. Also expected to be included: incentives for corporate worker-friendliness, such as a tax deduction for small businesses that provide health insurance for their workers, tax breaks for companies that subsidize employee job training, and write-offs for small employers that provide pensions. To appeal to moderates, it also will include tough work requirements and time limits on welfare recipients.

These messages should sit well with Democratic moderates. "When our party wanders down the road of economic redistribution, we lose the middle class," says centrist Representative Robert E. Andrews (D-N.J.). "When we emphasize economic growth and job creation, we're heading down the right road."

Even party liberals say they'll back the new program in order to regain a congressional majority. For instance, Representative Charles B. Rangel (D-N.Y.), a leading liberal who is in line to become chairman of the House Ways & Means Committee in the event of a Democratic takeover, says he'll pledge "not to do my own thing but to guide the Democratic agenda through the committee."

Corporate America is not yet convinced that congressional Democrats have changed their stripes. "For the past three years, their whole agenda has been antibusiness," says John Teets, chairman of Dial Corp. "Now, you hear this rhetoric about being pro-business. But that's exactly what it is: rhetoric."

Some Democrats worry that the Hill blueprint could clash with some of the conservative social themes now being voiced by President Clinton. But congressional strategists say the distinction is deliberate: They're trying to craft a set of issues that would allow them to survive politically even if Republican Bob Dole surges in the polls. Although Gephardt has kept the White House abreast of his plans, Fazio stresses that "this is a congressional effort."

Republicans, naturally, dismiss the Democratic endeavor. House Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) says a Democratic contract can be summed up in two points: higher taxes and more spending. But Democrats swear they've learned that, as Andrews says, "you're not going to stay in power by running as a centrist and voting like a liberal." American voters will decide on Nov. 5 whether the Uncontract is a blueprint for a truly different House.

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