Leading Article: Newt of the Hundred Days

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The Hundred Days have come and gone and the Great American Debate still rages: did OJ do it or didn't he? Oh, and while it caught the popular attention only fleetingly, there was also Newt Gingrich's Contract with America.

Actually the polls have shown that as many as 53 per cent of Americans have heard of the contract and that Mr Gingrich's name recognition is almost as high as that of Lance Ito, the judge in the Simpson trial. It is only in a nation where the system is so stable, the economy so strong, that ordinary people can afford the indulgence of getting on with their lives as, in some distant orbit, the politicians get on with theirs.

The Republicans, who control both houses of Congress for the first time in 40 years, are leading an attempt to redefine US priorities in the light of the end of the Cold War. The federal deficit, not much of a concern in the days when Ronald Reagan was doing battle with Communism, is in the trillions, posing a threat - as both Democrats and Republicans couch the issue - to the future of America's children. The welfare system has failed to stop the demise of the inner cities, rampant crime, racial tensions and a growing number of teenage pregnancies. The hi-tech revolution has made middle-class Americans uncertain about their jobs.

While the country cannot be said to be in crisis - and while Americans for the most part experience these problems more as spectators than participants - problems they remain. If they are not addressed, the visions of social anarchy that the more shrill Republicans like to conjure up may become a frightening reality in the decades ahead.

Mr Gingrich, the Lenin of the Second American Revolution, has persuaded his troops that the answer lies in reducing the role and cost of federal government, devolving responsibility for the nation's health to individuals, to the decent, reliable American folk out there. To that end he has whipped the lower house of Congress into line, making good his promises to set new records and vote on 10 items of legislation within the hallowed first hundred days of the 1995 congressional session. Only two of the contract's items have so far passed into law. An attempt to force an amendment to the constitution obliging government to run a balanced budget was defeated in the Senate.

"Much thunder, no rain", was the verdict of one Democrat senator on Mr Gingrich's attempted 100-day shake-up of the world. Yet the Gingrich thunder has had the effect of waking up the American body politic to the urgency of addressing domestic issues too long ignored. Congress has been reinvigorated, the Democrats have risen to life, in the last week matching the Republicans punch for punch. A national debate has sparked into life which, confused as it may be now, will determine the political direction the planet's most powerful and influential nation takes into the 21st century. The world ought to watch. Once the OJ trial is over, it is not beyond the bounds of possibility that Americans will watch, too.