Newt Gingrich's blazing "Contract with America" quickly flamed out. Republicans seized on its 10-point conservative platform to win control of Congress in 1994, but few of the actual proposals became law in the form Gingrich presented them. However, a decade after its failure in Washington, the contract still lives although with a twist: The battle has moved to state ballot initiatives, and voters next month will be revisiting some of the contract's major goals.
Depending on the results of court decisions, voters in as many as six states will be deciding whether to adopt a Colorado-style "taxpayer bill of rights" limit on spending (TABOR for short). Even more will be passing judgment on some of the conservative social values written into the contract, with eight states giving voters a choice on same- sex marriage. And 10 states, in keeping with the contract's thrust against government regulation, will decide whether to ban the use of eminent domain for economic development.
While all of the ballot measures are the product of state-level conservative activism, they also reflect a conservative strategy aimed at coordinating a national strategy but focusing action in the states.
A generation ago, liberals despaired of winning at the state level on issues such as civil rights and environmental regulation. They concluded it was easier to fight one big battle in Washington than to have to fight the same battles 50 times in state capitols. Conservatives countered that liberals were centralizing power in a way the founders never intended.
After Gingrich's contract failed, however, conservatives turned the liberal strategy on its head. Grover Norquist and his Americans for Tax Reform won a TABOR toehold in Colorado. Since then, what began as a brushfire in Western states has spread across the nation, reaching to Rhode Island and Maine.
Why focus on a national mega-campaign, only to get stuck slogging through partisan jungles? Why not identify a hot issue and a favorable battleground, and fight a limited war? It might be easier in some cases to win one national battle than 50 state-based ones. But it's better to begin by winning a handful of victories in the states than to overreach at the national level as Gingrich did--and lose.
Moreover, the battles are about much more than achieving policy change. They're about rallying partisans to the cause. Defeat can lead to ultimate victory if it gets partisans worked up and ready to fight. Winning on just one front can encourage activists to believe that victories are possible elsewhere.
This strategy is working largely outside media scrutiny. Conservative interest groups such as Norquist's organization and the National Taxpayers Union have, of course, attracted much attention. But behind the scenes are fax-based and blog-driven networks of loyalists who feed off each others' successes and seethe at their failures. Collecting signatures for ballot propositions isn't easy. The conservatives' success in getting similar measures on the ballot in multiple states is evidence of using red-meat issues to build a broad, enthusiastic base below the radar.
Liberals have come to the game late, but they're counter-attacking. Groups such as the Progressive States Network are mobilizing the left. In late summer, they succeeded in knocking a TABOR initiative off the Oklahoma ballot. Left-leaning groups also have put minimum-wage increases on the ballot in four states, in hope not only of beating back the conservative attack but of boosting Democratic turnout.
All of this amounts to a major change in policy strategy, fueled in part by the deep and bitter partisanship that has polarized the nation and driven many activists to the ideological barricades. It's stimulated as well by new technologies, especially blogs, that make it far easier to spread a consistent message among loyalists in diverse parts of the country in an easy and inexpensive way.
As the conservatives' mastery of the strategy and Howard Dean's fund- raising success in the 2004 presidential campaign both make clear, the rise of such electoral technology is quickly transforming elections and the way high-profile issues are playing out in American federalism.