SPECIAL REPORT

THE POLITICS OF DISGRUNTEMENT

Newt Gingrich claims a victory, but his battle is far from over

CARL MOLLINS April 17 1995
SPECIAL REPORT

THE POLITICS OF DISGRUNTEMENT

Newt Gingrich claims a victory, but his battle is far from over

CARL MOLLINS April 17 1995

THE POLITICS OF DISGRUNTEMENT

SPECIAL REPORT

Newt Gingrich claims a victory, but his battle is far from over

REPORT FROM WASHINGTON

CARL MOLLINS

During the closing acts of his 14-week Contract with America legislative program in the U.S. House of Representatives last week, ringmaster Newt Gingrich celebrated outdoors with 14 circus elephants. The House Speaker, an author of the contract and an amateur zoologist, declared himself pleased both with his progress inside the Capitol building and with the presence of the animals outside. (The elephant is his party’s symbol; nowhere in view was a Democratic donkey.) “The number of elephants here gives this particular Republican a certain amount of happiness,” said Gingrich, as officials of the visiting Ringling Bros, and Bamum & Bailey Circus appointed him an honorary ringmaster and Capitol Police handcuffed and dragged away animal-rights protesters. Indoors, congressional orators played up comparisons between what Gingrich called “the outer circus and the inner circus.” Declared rookie California Democrat Zoe Lofgren, denouncing a Gingrich-sponsored tax-cut bill as rewarding the rich at the poor’s expense: “The elephants have gone berserk in the Capitol with their contract.”

The bill passed handily around midnight. (Eleven of the 230 Republicans voted No, but 27 of the 204 Democrats voted Yes.) If approved by a doubting Senate and signed by a critical President Bill Clinton, it would provide child-credit benefits tilted towards upper-income families and shrink capital-gains taxes by half. The bill survived public misgivings by more than 100 Republican members who felt it conflicted with a priority to erase the annual federal budget deficit in seven years. Gingrich put down that mutiny by vowing to offset the cost with future deep cuts in welfare and other spending. With that and similar policies, Gingrich Republicans attempt to capitalize on the politics of disgruntlement. But that unease among electors is so ill-defined that opinion polls and reports from Middle America expose uncertainties not only about the Gingrich program, but about what else can be done to relieve the people’s anxieties.

Passage of the tax-cut bill and other matters completed House work on the contract with a week to spare in Gingrich’s 100-day timetable. The Gingrich Republicans thus fulfilled a promise during last fall’s election cam-

paign to at least bring the contract’s 10 principal proposals to a vote in the House. “This has been an immense amount of work,” said Gingrich, claiming a successful launch of the Republican revolution as Congress adjourned for a three-week holiday. “Despite the amount of rancor directed at me personally, I think frankly everything else has gone about as well as we could have hoped.”

The next stage is less hopeful for a crusade that is as much a counterrevolution against what the Gingrich Republicans cite as the primary source of the country’s disgruntlement—the social programs erected in Democratic President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society laws three decades ago. (Gingrich admires Democrat Lranklin Roosevelt, the 1930s father of old age pensions, unemployment insurance and aid to the poor, in the expressed belief that Roosevelt “opposed permanent welfare.” More important, Gingrich has cited Roosevelt as a model of how to market a counterrevolution to overturn the pre-

vailing political establishment and launch 60 years of single-party dominance in Congress.)

Gingrich says his plans look ahead to a “third wave” information economy (following the agricultural and industrial eras). But his vision is as much nostalgic. Values he espouses conjure a pre-1960s era viewed now as a tranquil, low-crime time of closely knit families, self-reliant citizens and a world of unquestioned U.S. political, economic and cultural supremacy.

The establishment that Gingrich aims to

exclude from power for a long time are the Democrats, controllers of the House with only two brief interruptions since Roosevelt’s day. Although moving to the right, they are the partisan heirs of Johnson. From 1965 to 1968, amid often violent public protest against the Vietnam War, the denial of civil rights to black Americans, neglect of the disadvantaged and the despoiling of the environment, Johnson convinced Congress to enact civil rights and welfare programs at a legislating pace unmatched until Gingrich’s current drive to dismantle them.

Democrat Clinton also aims to change some welfare into “workfare.” Like Gingrich, he advocates less government. But Gingrich, who says that “Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society and the counterculture’s values began the destruction of the Democratic Party and the destruction of the poor” has dismissed Clinton as “the enemy of normal Americans.” The president calls the Contract with America the “contract on America.”

In major weekend policy speeches, both men called for bipartisan co-operation. Gingrich said that “all of us together—Republicans and Democrats alike—must totally remake the federal government.” Clinton, too, appealed for “good-faith compromising,” but added, “this is no time for ideological extremism.” He said he will wield his veto power against harsher parts of the Gingrich agenda. The Senate may save him that trouble. Senators of both parties are already expressing second thoughts about some House legislation, including the tax cuts.

When it reassembles in May, the House will face other controversial issues, including moral matters. Gingrich, under pressure from the religious right, the National Rifle Association and the 73 new Republicans he helped get elected last November, is committed to debates on such issues as a tougher anti-abortion law, the repeal of a 1994 ban on assault weapons and the dilution of affirmative action law encouraging economic and educational opportunities for women and for racial and ethnic minorities. Then, there are Gingrich’s

own proposals to restore school prayers by constitutional amendment and to re-examine the 1993 “don’t ask, don’t tell, don’t pursue” policy on gays in the armed forces.

Even the Republican performance in the first three months of the 104th Congress elicited a confusion of responses in an opinion poll completed on April 4 for The New York Times and CBS News. Only 39 per cent of respondents said they were pleased with the Republican record; 47 per cent expressed disappointment. While ranking Clinton ahead of Gingrich on performance, most of those polled put Congress ahead of the White House for leadership. Almost all respondents favored fundamental welfare reform. Three out of five said the Gingrich agenda favors the rich. And only one in four expected it to improve the lives of their families.

One Middle American community that reflects a similar uncertainty is in the southwest comer of Indiana. That region has long been a place where people strove to create communities of prosperity and stability. Early

in the 1800s, near where the Wabash joins the Ohio River on its stately way to the Mississippi, a sect of German migrants prepared piously and industriously for what they believed was the imminent coming of Christ. Robert Owen, the Welsh-born industrialist and social reformer, followed with a contingent of scholarly settlers to establish a co-operative of learning and work. The Owenite village of New Harmony (population 950) remains. It is the home of wealthy descendant Kenneth Owen, now in his 90s, and restored Owen-era buildings that overseas pilgrims often visit.

The southwest corner of Indiana now groups almost 600,000 people in 13 counties as Indiana’s 8th U.S. congressional district. Both statistically and socially, it is Middle America: the U.S. Census Bureau places the population centre point of the United States within the largely middle-class district. Its residents work in services and manufacturing, farming, quarrying and coal mining. It is famous as a high-skill centre of basketball, America’s most popular sport, and the birthplace of former Boston Celtics superstar Larry Bird. Its urban pivots are striving Evansville (population 130,000) in the south and the university city of Bloomington (population 63,000) in the north. And last Nov. 8, in tune with a national trend, the corner’s electors narrowly replaced Democrat Frank McCloskey, 55, after 12 years of solid service as their man in Congress, with right-wing Republican John Hostettler, 33, a former powerstation engineer and a political novice.

Up and down the district, few residents seem certain of the reason why voters switched. There, as elsewhere in the nation, people are simply, albeit vaguely, disturbed that their community is not entirely harmonious, assuredly prosperous, nor secure in outlook. Why the shift in political allegiance? “I guess we liked the idea of a change,” said Carl Cooprider in the town of Bedford, retired from a nearby naval ordnance base. He reflected a common response.

But what prompted the decision to switch? Psychologist Jerry Yezbick, director of an Evansville job-retraining centre, cites insecurity generated by the area’s decline as a manufacturing centre, the closure of high-sulphur coal mines—“those are going the way of the buffalo”—with alternative service jobs paying lower wages. One new opportunity: a controversial riverboat casino operation promising 1,800 jobs. (“But who wants his kid employed in gambling?” asks one resident.)

Hostettler says that “a great new grassroots movement is taking place” and the proposed Republican tax and spending cuts show “we are heading in the right direction.” But most of the contract measures have more to do with political process than exerting a positive impact directly on people’s well-being. The Gingrich Republicans have yet to prove that they are engaged in anything more substantial than gaining passing partisan advantage from the politics of disgruntlement. □