High Noon in Washington

Rupert Cornwell describes the great showdown between warrior Newt Gingrich and healer Bill Clinton over their competing visions of America's future
Click to follow
The Independent Online
In so many ways they are similar. Both are big men of a certain age, babyboomers with luxuriant silver thatches, just starting to run to seed. Both are southerners and products of dysfunctional families. Both are fodder for every armchair psychologist in the land. They are a quick and clever pair, who can talk the hind legs off a donkey. They adore advertising their intelligence, even if the price is a certain economy with the truth. Neither, though, is a paragon of moral rectitude, which is why neither is wholly trusted. And together they have arrived at the pinnacle of American politics - the first Democratic President in half a generation, and the Republican who is the most powerful House Speaker in recent memory.

Today, however, in the great budget war of 1995, Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich are engaged in perhaps the defining combat of their political lives.

A government shutdown is an only-in-Washington affair. Elsewhere it might be the precursor of a coup. Here it is Kakfaesque rite of autumn, happening on average every couple of years (to be precise nine times since 1981), whenever Congress and the White House fail to agree on the budget. Normally, they end after a few hours, at most a few days. But 1995 may be different. Behind the childish fingerwagging, the negotiation by insult that has most Americans yearning anew for Colin Powell and wondering what they did to deserve so malfunctioning a polity, huge and intertwined interests are at stake.

These include some of the most distinguished careers in Washington and quite possibly the presidency itself - but beyond even that, two competing visions of society. A year before he faces re-election, Clinton has established himself as defender of an old Democratic idea of America, tracing its roots to Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal and Lyndon Johnson's vision of a Great Society. Ranged against it is the "Republican Revolution" of 1994, whose walking, talking embodiment is Gingrich.

The collision has been inevitable ever since 8 November last year, when the Republicans rode a wave of disgust with business-as-usual in Washington to capture control of Congress for the first time in 40 years. For once, an American political party had a manifesto, the Contract with America, setting out the Republicans' plans to roll back government, return powers to the states and - though no one paid much attention at the time - to balance the federal budget in seven years. And for once, in Gingrich, a political party had a man absolutely determined to push its "contract" through.

In technical terms, the present impasse is a nightmare to explain: a jungle of such abstruse notions as continuing resolutions, 13 separate appropriations bills and Section B Medicare - not to mention contending expert budget projections stretching into the next millennium, which in fact may offer ground for the compromise that must finally come. Peer through the forest and pick out the trees, though, and the struggle becomes clear cut, and titanic.

Behind the bickering lie two competing concepts of a government's role in society. Clinton's vetoes this week of bills that would have given the government temporary authority to borrow and spend money - and which have sent 800,000 federal workers home - were but a tiny foretaste of what is to come. Any day now we will get to the meat of the matter: the giant "reconciliation bill" which the Republicans are preparing to send to the White House, containing their plan to cut planned spending by $1,000bn, and taxes by $245bn, and balance the budget - all by 2002. Far more than a bill, this is the bible of the New Republicanism. Clinton will surely veto it on the spot. In doing so, he will set out the ground on which the 1996 election will be fought.

To measure the moment, consider what is in truth a sideshow to the main event: the predicament of Bob Dole. Careers come scarcely more distinguished than his: senator for 27 years, minority leader, majority leader, presidential candidate in 1980 and 1988, and now favourite for the Republican nomination next year. But at his obligatory appearances with Gingrich to rail budget invective on the White House, the majority leader's twitchy discomfort is plain to see. Left to a dealmaking pragmatist such as Bob Dole, the dispute would long since have been settled. Instead, he watches in the knowledge that his chances of victory in 1996 do not lie in his hands. He may be the Republican candidate, but Gingrich, not he, is Republicanism made flesh. And Gingrich, to put it mildly, is not loved.

A year after the 1994 election, political Washington may still be besotted by him. Not so the country at large, ever more alienated by the Gingrich that his devotees in the capital somehow overlook - the harsh voice that tears apart opponents as a pneumatic drill rips up asphalt, the lack of evident compassion for the needy of society, his doctrinaire glibness, on occasion his sheer silliness. Twelve months ago, he offered refreshing astringency and new ideas. Now, more frequently, he gets on people's nerves. No US politician has higher disapproval ratings. Gingrich muses of a presidential run, but if the polls are right, he would be trounced not only by Clinton but also in the Republican primaries, supposedly dominated by the very right-wing activists who hang on his every utterance. Rather, this battle over the budget is Gingrich's own presidential election.

And thus unfolds a classic contest between two political stereotypes, the warrior against the healer. To prevail, both must borrow from the persona of the other. Clinton has to show that, contrary to public perception, there are principles he will not abandon, that there is steel, not just putty, in his spine. The task of Gingrich the warrior is exactly opposite - to show that he cares about ordinary people, that he can deliver a deal as well as a soundbite.

So far at least, Clinton is winning. He has the advantage of being a single voice from the pulpit of the White House, speaking "on behalf of the American people" - a far more potent formula than the multi-person Republican choir wheeled out to respond in the Congressional press room. Skilfully, he has defined the argument, playing upon fear and painting the Republicans in general, and Gingrich in particular, as extremist ideologues bent on destroying the Medicare and Medicaid federal health schemes for the elderly and the poor, removing the welfare safety net and doing away with basic work safety and environmental regulations - all for tax cuts that will benefit the rich. Clinton's tactics are working. By a margin of five to one, according to a poll yesterday, the public blames Congress rather than the President for the country's troubles.

But the equation may change if the deadlock continues. Until now, Clinton has got away with simply saying no. With the reconciliation bill, he will have to come up with ideas of his own, and explain how he plans to balance the budget, a goal as unassailable as motherhood. If the public starts to shift blame in his direction, today's resolve may weaken. If so, it would not be the making of a President Gingrich. But it could mean the end of President Clinton.