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Republican pledge falls short

According to the Intrade political futures market, the odds that Republicans will capture the House of Representatives are about 74 percent. With a lead that big, one might expect that Republicans would avoid specific policy proposals at all cost. It's better not to change the conversation when you are winning.

Last week they did the next best thing, proposing a list of cautious and moderate policies that will be extraordinarily hard for sinking Democrats to snipe at.

The document is called the Pledge to America. Like Newt Gingrich's Contract With America, it outlines how the Republicans would seek to govern if granted a majority in the next election. But the pledge lacks the chutzpah of the original contract, which boldly introduced measures including a balanced-budget requirement, welfare reductions and 12-year term limits for members of Congress. If Gingrich tossed bombs, today's Republicans are tossing firecrackers.

The pledge contains plenty of rhetoric that should appeal to the tea party movement. "Though these petitions come from different walks," according to the document, "their message is uniform: Washington has not been listening." But consistent with the view that House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, is steering the party hard toward the middle, the meat of the document is extraordinarily moderate.

The pledge might refute the accusation that Republicans are the party of "no," but it may do little to soothe the hunger for drastic action that has driven the nation so quickly to the right.

The first stated goal of the proposal is to promote policies that will improve the economy and create jobs. "The longer our government refuses to wake up and abandon its job-killing agenda, the longer it will take to turn around and get people working again," it says. The biggest item under this heading is extending the Bush tax cuts for all income levels, rather than just lower- and middle-income Americans.

Given that 31 House Democrats recently sent a letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., arguing the same thing, this is hardly a radical step. Other than a measure allowing a new tax deduction for small businesses, that's about it for tax policy.

Next, it turns to reducing the long-term fiscal imbalances that many economists say have caused so much business caution. The proposal outlines four steps to curb discretionary spending.

The first step would be a cancellation of all unspent stimulus money remaining from last year's $787 billion package. Second, they would aim to cut spending to pre-stimulus levels, representing an immediate reduction of $100 billion. Third, they would institute budget caps on discretionary spending to attempt to control the future rate of spending growth. Lastly, Republicans would institute a hiring freeze for all nonsecurity federal employees.

The immediate spending reduction of $100 billion sounds rather radical, but against the backdrop of the disappearing stimulus, it isn't. According to the August Congressional Budget Office outlook, outlays for the stimulus are scheduled to be $143 billion in 2011 and $62 billion in 2012. Getting from there to a $100 billion drop in spending is hardly a heavy lift.

Another important objective for the House Republicans is a repeal of the Obama health care legislation passed earlier this year. Republicans assert that the health care law will kill jobs, raise health care costs, reduce the availability of private insurance, increase government spending, and raise taxes. This is perhaps the most dramatic part of the proposal. But given how unpopular the health care bill has been, with even Democrats running against it, it is hardly a risky step.

There is a grab bag full of other proposals covering such items as national defense priorities, TARP, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, and legislative procedures, but none is particularly noteworthy.

President Obama, it seems, has governed so far to the left that House Republicans with such moderate goals can still seem right-wing in comparison. One worries, though, that while this might be smart politics, it will lead to very modest policy gains should Republicans capture Congress.

After all, the country is on very shaky ground, and strong medicine may be required to restore it to a healthy growth path.

A number of ambitious young Republican thinkers — such as Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., with his "Roadmap for America's Future," or Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., whose new book, "Restoring the Republic: A Clear, Concise and Colorful Blueprint for America's Future" has quietly become the leading topic of conversation in some Washington, D.C., policy circles — have argued for a different approach. They believe that Republicans need to set a clear and aggressive agenda ahead of the midterm election so that they can claim a mandate while negotiating major fixes with Obama afterward.

Boehner might argue that it is prudent to start with small steps, but in choosing this path he is sacrificing the mandate that the tea party movement possibly could have provided for more ambitious proposals.