Republicans have unveiled a midterm election agenda heavy on critiques of Joe Biden but light on specific policies – and with a throwback theme 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 represented an effort to tone down rhetoric and win back independent voters.
Kevin McCarthy, minority leader in the House of Representatives, introduced the party’s “Commitment to America” at an event near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, a crucial battleground in November’s vote.
The memo of principles underlined how Republicans are hoping to make the midterms a referendum on the presidency of Biden rather than his predecessor, Donald Trump, who continues to suck up media oxygen as a target of several criminal and civil investigations.
“I challenge the president to join with us – let’s go across the country and let’s debate what his policies have done to America and our plan for a new direction,” McCarthy told supporters. “And let’s let America make the decision for the best way for this country to go forward.”
The one-page commitment carried unavoidable echoes of the “Contract With America”, a statement of intent in 1994 that helped Newt Gingrich’s 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.
Its defining message was that Democrats have failed the American people. McCarthy, who hopes to replace Nancy Pelosi as House speaker, 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 have no plan to fix all the problems they’ve created.”
Taking a leaflet from his jacket pocket, McCarthy added: “So you know what? We’ve created a commitment to America.”
The four pillars are “an economy that’s strong”, “a nation that’s safe”, “a future that’s free” and “a government that’s accountable”.
The first point reflects Republicans’ hope that stubbornly high inflation will lead voters to punish Democrats on election day.
McCarthy said a strong economy means “you can fill up your tank, you can buy the groceries, you have enough money left over to go to Disneyland and save for a future – that the pay cheques grow; they no longer shrink”.
A safe nation, he added, “means your community will be protected, your law enforcement will be respected, your criminals will be prosecuted”.
McCarthy also emphasised the scourge of the opioid fentanyl and the need to secure the US-Mexico border, an issue recently dominated by a stunt in which the Florida governor, Ron DeSantis, relocated migrants to Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts.
Indeed, Friday’s launch was notable for what McCarthy did not talk about: abortion rights, voting rights and the climate crisis, all of which are seen as political liabilities for his party. Democrats have been energised by June’s supreme court decision to overturn the constitutional right to abortion.
McCarthy sought 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 for speaker.
Democrats dismissed the Commitment to America as a Trump platform in disguise. Pelosi said: “Today’s rollout is the latest evidence of House Republicans’ wholehearted commitment to Maga: going all in on an extremist agenda designed to greatly diminish Americans’ health, freedom and security.”
The House majority leader, Steny Hoyer, distributed a list of eight questions Democrats have for Republicans about their platform. It took aim at many House members’ staunch defence of Trump.
“Who won the 2020 Presidential Election?” the list asks. “Like President Trump, do you believe that the January 6 insurrectionists were engaged in ‘legitimate political discourse’ and should not be prosecuted for their violent actions? … Do you support defunding the FBI in retaliation for executing a search warrant at Mar-a-Lago?”
The list also seizes on other Republican policies. Hoyer asked:“Will Republicans pursue a nationwide abortion ban? … If given the chance, will you try again to repeal the Affordable Care Act and strip health-care access away from millions of Americans?”
Others joined the criticism. Reed Galen, co-founder of the Lincoln Project, an anti-Trump group, said: “This agenda is meaningless. Kevin McCarthy wants everyone to think he has a positive agenda for America – which nothing could be further from the truth.
“The ultra-Maga has total control of the party and is only interested in a national abortion ban and impeaching Joe Biden. The GOP is no longer interested in governing, they just want to obtain power and use it to destroy their enemies.”
McCarthy’s initiative contrasts with the Senate, where the minority leader, Mitch McConnell, has declined to put forward an agenda, preferring to simply run against Biden.
Republicans remain the favourites to win back the House and have history on their side: since the second world war, the president’s party has on average lost 29 House seats in each president’s first midterm election, according to the Council on Foreign Relations.