ARLINGTON, VIRGINIA // Republican legislators promised to roll back government control and cut public spending as they try to capitalise on voter dissatisfaction with the Obama administration ahead of November's elections. Unveiling their plans yesterday in their 21-page A Pledge to America at a small suburban hardware outlet here, Republicans hoped to revisit the mid-1990s, when right-wing legislators rode a tide of popular outrage to take control of the US Congress back from the Democrats.
"Across America, the people see a government in Washington that isn't listening, doesn't get it and doesn't care," said John Boehner, the minority leader of the US House of Representatives. The event had Mr Boehner and other Republican leaders sitting around a low table amid displays of tile flooring. Doffing their suit jackets and rolling up their shirt sleeves, the politicians aimed to appeal to tap the anti-Washington sentiment among the electorate.
"This new governing agenda, built by listening to the people, offers plans to create jobs, cut spending, and put power where it belongs: in the hands of the people," Mr Boehner said. Aside from the plan's attacks on the US president Barack Obama and his Democratic Party, the document also was calibrated to narrow growing divisions within the Republican Party itself. Mr Boehner and his colleagues on Capitol Hill have increasingly found themselves caught between Democratic majorities in both the House and Senate and a populist right-wing movement - known as the Tea Party - that is opposed to government spending, relaxed immigration rules and the Democrats' comprehensive healthcare plan.
Yet the challenge for Republicans is doubly difficult thanks to the legacy of George W Bush, who was the US president for eight years before Mr Obama. Mr Bush's economic policies deviated sharply from traditional Republican ideology, which tends to favour minimal government intrusion and low public spending. Seen in that light, their platform is as much an effort to distance Republicans from the Bush years as it is a repudiation of Mr Obama's policies - particularly his healthcare plan and the more than US$800 billion (Dh2.93 trillion) stimulus package last year.
The plan calls for a spending freeze on all domestic programmes, except for those aimed at veterans and senior citizens. It would also halt new hiring in all federal agencies except in departments related to security. But it also draws on several elements from Mr Bush's fractious legacy - particularly those seen as essential to his "war on terror". The new plan would "prevent the federal government from importing terrorists on to American soil" from the controversial detention centre at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, while also ensuring that accused terrorists are tried in military, as opposed to civilian, courts.
It also reinforced the Republicans' oft-stated goal of extending the Bush-era tax cuts, even for the two per cent of Americans whose income exceeds $250,000 each year. The challenge did not go unanswered by Democrats. "Congressional Republicans are pledging to ship jobs overseas; blow a $700 billion hole in the deficit to give tax cuts to millionaires and billionaires ... subject American families to the recklessness of Wall Street, and take away patients' rights," said Nadeam Elshami, a spokesman for Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic leader in the House. "Republicans want to return to the same failed economic policies that hurt millions of Americans and threatened our economy."
The Democrats are once again hoping to remind voters of the Bush era that many, including Republicans, would like to forget. Erasing those memories will be hard enough for Republicans. But in this election, it is the Tea Party and its virulent right-wing anger that Republican policy makers must answer first. And if initial reactions from the right are any judge, they are already failing. "Tea party activists have been claiming all year that there exists in the United States a potential voting majority for radically more limited government," David Frum, the conservative commentator, said on his FrumForum blog. "The Republican Pledge to America declares: Sorry, we don't believe that."