US Republicans try to recapture the past

Right wing takes stock: 'Dark Ages Weekend' chews over the problems of turning Newt Gingrich's revolution into reality

JOHN CARLIN

Washington

Sobered in 1995 by the discovery that democracy is not conducive to revolution, a group of leading Republicans spent the New Year festivities in nostalgic recollection of an era when the business of government was accomplished by royal fiat.

More than 300 conservative congressmen, businessmen and thinkers gathered at the Doral Golf Resort and Spa in Miami for an event called the Dark Ages Weekend. The name was chosen as a spoof - "to show we Republicans have a sense of humour", as one Congressman explained it - on a New Year's bash attended by President Bill Clinton called the Renaissance Weekend.

The organisers of the Dark Ages event, a couple of young Washington lawyers, provided guests with plenty of jolly, Olde Worlde amusement: a Charlemagne tennis tournament, a William the Conqueror golf competition, a masked ball and a Canterbury Tales banquet.

But the mood was rueful: December had been a cruel month. For the truth had dawned that Newt Gingrich's plans "to change the world" and "shift the entire planet" had been thwarted by checks and balances in the constitution and the democratic imperative to pander to the vagaries of public opinion.

The revellers used the Dark Ages Weekend as an opportunity to regroup, take stock, evaluate. But the last thought on anybody's mind was that the time might have come to redefine Republican goals. The sacred task remained the same: to destroy "the Liberal Welfare State" and return to the individual the right to shape his own destiny alone. The problem, they concluded, lay in the way the Second American Revolution had been packaged.

The debate turned less on the substance of Republican ideas than on how to sell them better. Thus Ralph Reed, the secularly ambitious head of the Christian Coalition, said the Republicans should shift the rhetorical emphasis away from dismantling central government to restoring power to the states and to the people.

Michael Huffington, who vainly spent $25m in 1994 trying to win election to the Senate, elaborated in a speech on Mr Reed's idea. "If you don't use the right words you can't get the message across. Clinton is using more effective words than the Republicans. Clinton is a better communicator. Now, if Ronald Reagan were our leader, we'd win the battle."

Laura Ingraham, one of the organisers of the powwow, noted that while conservatives were driving the nation's political discourse, they had lost their edge in the debate. "President Clinton," she noted, "has captured words like compassion."

Lurking, unspoken, over the proceedings was the shadow of Mr Gingrich. It was he who had masterminded the Republicans' victory in November 1994 by tutoring party candidates in the semantics of power. Thus he taught them to attribute to their cause words like "courage", "family" and "peace" and to their Democratic rivals words like "sick", "corrupt" and "stagnation".

Yet today, with Mr Gingrich's negative poll ratings exceeding 60 per cent, a growing number of Republicans are beginning to wonder whether he might be a better professor than a leader, whether perhaps he might turn out to be his revolution's greatest liability. Which is why he too has been engaging in a little end-of-year self-flagellation. In a weekend interview with CNN he acknowledged he had not projected himself as well as he might have and said his New Year's resolution would be to adopt a more thoughtful and contemplative approach to life.

He had erred, for example, in complaining publicly about seating arrangements on the presidential plane on the flight to Israel for Yitzhak Rabin's funeral. "There's no question that there are times, as I've described it, where it's like throwing an interception straight into the other team's defence. And on several occasions, and that's one, I did things that weren't right."

He meant henceforth, he said, to listen more carefully, to be more precise and more thoughtful in what he said.

"You know, I'm the Speaker of the House. I'm not an assistant professor of history. I'm not an analyst. I'm not a commentator. And I think at times I've tried to play other roles, and it's almost always been wrong."

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