LEADING ARTICLES : The Newt phenomenon

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Newt Gingrich, who today assumes his new office as Speaker of the House of Representatives in the US Congress, does not represent a new road in American politics: he and his Republican majority are actually the political embodiment of a dead end.

Sure, he's a man with a plan. He is the principal apostle of the "Contract for America", with its ten commandments, promised for enactment in the first 100 days of the new Congress.

But the contract cannot deliver. From the safety of an ocean's distance it is obvious that violent crime cannot be solved by more executions, longer sentences and allowing more guns. It is transparent that you can't balance a budget by spending more and taxing less. The underclass does not threaten less because it loses its welfare entitlements. The contract is like a telephone sex line - all the excitement is in the words; there can be no action. And after a while Americans will tire of talking to the bored hooker on the end of the line.

What then?

That depends on how you explain the Gingrich phenomenon. In analysing the drubbing he handed out to the Democrats in the mid-term elections in November, some commentators go for the Bad Bill theory (Clinton's personal and political mistakes were to blame). Others more credibly prefer the Long March of History (Clinton's victory was a blip, with Americans in the long term increasingly hating the state, welfarism and the legacies of the New Deal).

But one important ingredient needs to be added - the extent to which the security and sense of wellbeing of the middle classes have been eroded by change. Today's fashionably down-sized corporations may be more profitable, but that doesn't mean more well-paid or secure jobs. So in 1993, when the US economy grew by 3 per cent, the median income of American families actually fell.

This in part explains why Mr Clinton is reaping no gain from a growing economy - the middle classes aren't benefiting. And their economic insecurity is paralleled by a cultural insecurity in which their values seem to be constantly assaulted by the forces of moral chaos; gays, feminists, illegal immigrants and abortionists. Here Newt is their man. And in his assault on the privileges and peccadilloes of the Washington political class he has already changed the political landscape.

But when Newt fails to deliver on the budget and on crime and on the economy, will the American voters, inflamed but unsatisfied, decide that they need make common cause to improve their economic lot? Or will they harken to those even less inhibited in appealing to the fearful, carping and mistrustful ids of middle America?