Writers have right on the run

As radical Republicanism slips, liberals are urging their side to seize the political initiative, writes John Carlin in Washington

PRINTED on an invitation to a Republican victory party in Washington on 7 April last year, was a quote from the film Conan the Barbarian. It was the warrior's reply to the question: "What is best in life?" "To crush enemies, see them driven before you, and hear the lamentations of their women."

The celebrity guest at the party was Newt Gingrich, speaker of the House of Representatives, the scourge of liberals and "big government", the real-life Conan who inspired his congressional shock troops to achieve the impossible: to pass through the House of Representatives, six days short of the promised 100 days, nine out of the 10 items on his Contract with America. The Republican revellers greeted the great man's entrance with last year's revolutionary war-cry, "Newt! Newt! Newt!"

It has been downhill ever since for the Speaker, for the Contract and for the Republicans. Polls at the end of last year showed that Mr Gingrich was the most unpopular American politician in living memory. The Contract lies crumpled, an all but forgotten wish-list, in the Oval Office wastepaper basket. And if today's public mood is to be trusted, Bob Dole, the presidential candidate with the rigor mortis smile, stands no chance in the November elections against the beaming Bill Clinton.

Seizing on the disarray in Republican ranks, the liberal intelligentsia have been bombarding bookshops with a barrage of publications designed to instil new heart into the American left. "We Democrats have been taking a beating from rabid Republicans," writes James Carville in the first chapter of We're Right, They're Wrong. "Here's where we're going to take on their nastiest, hairiest, ugliest myths one by one."

Mr Carville was Mr Clinton's chief campaign strategist in the 1992 election, the irreverent, jeans-and-T-shirt Washington guru credited with the famous catchline, "It's the economy, stupid". His book, just out, has been number one in the New York Times bestseller list for the last two weeks. Following close behind are Rush Limbaugh is a Big Fat Idiot, a lampoon of the radio talk-show host (audience once 24 million, now dwindling) credited by many on the right as the architect of the Republican Party's spectacular victory in the congressional elections of 1994; and They Only Look Dead: why progressives will dominate the next political era, by Washington Post columnist E J Dionne Jr.

Mr Carville starts from the principle that "survival of the fittest is not an organising principle for a democratic nation", and proceeds to "cut the crap" out of Gingrich Republicanism. He scoffs at the "asinine" notion that by spending less money on welfare - "We have the thinnest, most pathetic social safety net of any industrialised country" - America's poor will be better off. As for supply-side economics, Mr Carville writes: "The idea that you can cut taxes and increase government revenues is the equivalent of those diet schemes where you eat a lot of French fries and chocolate ice cream, and then you're supposed to lose weight."

Mr Franken, who writes comic skits for NBC's Saturday Night Live, found that most of his work was done merely by quoting such Limbaugh gems as "Gas the Feminazis" and "I don't have compassion for the poor." Widening his target to include Republican plans to balance the budget by cutting health benefits for the elderly, Mr Franken ventures a Modest Proposal: "Why not shoot the elderly into outer space? ... I'm not just thinking about the budget here. I'm talking about science. Just think how many more manned space operations Nasa could undertake if they didn't have to worry about getting the astronauts back."

Mr Dionne, whose treatise is more academic than Mr Carville's and Mr Franken's and therefore less read, believes that Republicans had better brace themselves for a pendulum swing to the left. "Voters are asked to accept as `natural' and `inevitable' whatever outcome the market happens to produce. They are scolded to `stop whining' and `work harder'." But America's Anxious Middle has tired of the Republicans' social Darwinism, Mr Dionne writes. It is ripe for a progressive backlash.

The question remains whether these broadsides from the progressive literati will embolden Democrats to seize the day. One sign that they might have caught the writers' fighting spirit was provided on Friday, when Don Fowler, chairman of the Democratic National Committee, launched a multi-million dollar campaign to mobilise women, who vote Democrat in far greater numbers than men, to express their distaste for uncaring Republicanism in the November polls.

Yet in the giddily shifting landscape of contemporary American politics, nobody can tell whether, 10 months from now, Mr Gingrich's Conan Republicans will again be dancing to the lamentations of the women. At a party in Washington on Thursday to promote Mr Carville's book, a publisher suggested making contingency plans for a right-wing counter-attack. "Who knows?" the publisher said. "It could be that, 18 months from now, the market will be clamouring once more for conservative red meat."

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