What is the real Newt Gingrich?

British right-wingers are claiming kinship with an illusion
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The Independent Online
A British couple who have been living in Washington for a year, and before that in Madrid for three, remarked the other day that they struggled to communicate with Americans. Much more so than they did with the Spanish, whose language took time to learn. "After a week in Madrid I felt more at home with the people than I do now in Washington," the man said.

Other British people - other Europeans - who live in Washington have expressed similar sentiments. They sense a dissonance in their exchanges with Americans. It is not that Americans are better or worse. They are just different.

Which is perhaps why the numerous opinions ventilated in the British media in recent days concerning the analogies between politics in America and politics in Britain, the Republican right and the Tory right, Gingrich and Portillo, have struck a hollow note on this side of the ocean. All the more so because they have tended to take as their premise the notion that Newt Gingrich, the Republican Speaker of the House of Representatives, is the most dominant and popular figure in American politics.

The truth is, as poll after poll has shown, that middle America has little taste for him. He bestrides the insulated world of Washington, where his vitality, cunning and driving ambition are feared and admired. But a Time/CNN poll published this week showed that 24 per cent of Americans did not even know who he was. The much-derided Bill Clinton enjoys favourable ratings of 52 per cent, to Mr Gingrich's 25 per cent. Mr Clinton's wildest dream is that Mr Gingrich might make a late entry into the Republican primaries and emerge as his presidential rival next year.

A New York Times article on Tuesday tested ordinary citizens' views in a swing-vote Tennessee town called Murfreesboro. The reporter spoke to voters who had helped sweep the Republicans to power in November's mid-term congressional elections. Most were apprehensive about the radicalism of the new right. Unable by and large to identify policies they disapproved of, they felt the Republicans were going "too far". As for the House Speaker, the New York Times reported: "One after another, voters responded first with a chuckle, then a shaking of the head, when asked about Mr Gingrich."

If you are straining to find a point of contact between American and British political responses, here it is. In Mr Gingrich, ordinary Americans see a cranky individual who falls comically short of the qualities they look for in a president. Ordinary Britons would not, likewise, elect as prime minister a man whose capacity for self-parody Spitting Image would be stretched to exceed. Yet the number of Republican true believers out there ensuring Mr Gingrich's rise to a position as powerful as House Speaker points to the wider differences between political landscapes in the US and Britain.

What are the hot-button political issues in America today? Abortion, for one. The hysteria over a woman's right to choose has filled the political discourse with a rancour, extending at times to murder, which has few parallels in other Western democracies. Gun control, one of the issues that apparently triggered the Oklahoma bombing, generates no less fevered debate: the Republicans' leading presidential contender, Bob Dole, has calculated that he will win votes by pushing for the repeal of a law banning the commercial sale of AK-47 assault rifles. The Republicans, spurred on by the Christian right, are also making a push for the reintroduction of morning prayers at school.

And then there are the questions which are beyond debate in the mainstream political arena. Bill Clinton is in agreement with Mr Gingrich that the death penalty, expected to claim more than 40 victims this year, should embrace more crimes and should be extended beyond the 36 states where it is now law.

There's also flag-burning. The House of Representatives approved last week an amendment to the Founding Fathers' constitution legally prohibiting the desecration of the Stars and Stripes. Tell that to the Londoner wearing his Union Jack underpants on the beach at Torremolinos.Tell him also about the law, applied in most states, forbidding voters under the age of 21 from buying alcohol at liquor stores and all voters from holding an open can of beer on the streets or on the front porches of their homes.

On "family values" the truth is that Michael Portillo has rather more in common with Tony Blair than Mr Gingrich, and the Eurosceptics have more in common with Felipe Gonzalez than the Republican right.

The area of agreement most often identified concerns the right-wing devotion to the principle of reducing the role of Big Government. But principle is as far as it goes. The differences emerge in the specifics. Examination of Mr Gingrich's proposals reveals that what he has in mind is the devolution of large chunks of power from central to local government. Cut the federal welfare budget and pass on responsibility for unwed teenage mothers to the states. Abolish the Departments of Education, Health and Commerce and transfer part of the cash saved to local government.

Whereas, in the language of the American right, Washington is the enemy, nothing in John Redwood's manifesto last week suggested that he believes the sovereignty of the British parliament should be curtailed. Yet he quite cheerfully admits to admiring Mr Gingrich. Which must be for the same reasons that other politicians of other political persuasions admire him: the House Speaker is a man of extraordinary vitality, driving ambition and political nous.

The imagined kinship of ideology between Tories and Republicans rests on nostalgia for the Cold War certitudes that bound Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan together. Those days are gone. Americans, mindful after the fall of Communism that the reason they founded their nation was to leave the rest of the world behind, are trying now to deal with their own unique problems. If what the Eurosceptics are looking for is a political model viable in Britain, they would be better off looking south across the Channel than west across the Atlantic.

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