Newt 'n' John cannot sing in tune

If there is a British political leader who has something to learn from Gingrich, it is not Major January's flavour of the month is by now not far short of the bozo of the year
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The Independent Online
The political right has taken some delight in today's scheduled meeting in Washington between John Major and Newt Gingrich, the new Republican Speaker of the House: the Prime Minister will meet the President and then - ho ho - the real President.

"Major asks Gingrich for tips on winning," claims one British newspaper. Gingrich, who stormed his Republican troops to victory in last November's American mid-term elections, will now apparently slip the Prime Minister some tips on how the trick might work in Britain. Forget Bill and John, we are advised, the "special relationship" is Newt 'n' John. For all the unfortunate echoes of a Seventies pop star, this, we learn, is the new transatlantic political power base. For Major, Gingrich is - as, appropriately, Ms Newton-John once sang - the one that he wants.

Well, the Conservative Party is incompetent at many things, and one of the less widely remarked is its inability to read American politics. At the US Embassy's election night party in London in November 1992, numerous British Tories were to be found fingering their Bush-Quayle badges and still insisting that their boys would be all right. Even before that, the loan of Tory election strategists to Bush's failing campaign - and the willingness of the Home Office to root around in the passport archives for alleged evidence of the young Bill Clinton's attempt to jump countries - irritated the President and his family with consequences still visible in Anglo-American relationships today. Unchastened by this mistake, British Conservatives still swaggeringly delude themselves that President Clinton is somehow concerned by their dislike of his Irish policy.

And now, having consistently proved the worst analyst of American politics since King George III, John Major makes the same mistake with Newt Gingrich. The Tories clearly believe they are courting a people's hero, a politician who would vouchsafe to them the secret of successful right-wing populism in the Nineties.

In fact, Major will shake hands today with a man who is already damaged goods; still, perhaps, fresher political produce than President Clinton, but souring more rapidly. Recent polls have shown Gingrich's "negatives" (the index of voter contempt and suspicion) rising steeply, while the President's have fallen slightly, although his position still indicates relative remission rather than recovery.

And while the visiting Tories truffle for the latest Washington gossip on Clinton and the Whitewater affair, they would do well to remember that Gingrich himself is under investigation by the ethics committee of his own legislature for alleged muddling of political and private finances. In short, January's flavour of the month may, by now, be not far short of the bozo of the year.

John Major could, however, learn something from Speaker Gingrich today, for the Republican demagogue represents not, as the Tories hoped, the secret of modern political success but rather, a case study in modern political failure.

There have been four elements in his fall. The first is the acceleration of expectation and rejection which the contemporary leader faces. Gingrich's first 100 days - the traditional marker of political success, and a timespan of which he made much in his campaign last year - will not be over until the middle of this month, but his hopes and promises were eviscerated in barely 50. This is modern politics: a month, at best, of stored-up love, the honeymoon with the voters over by the second morning.

This hunger for rapid results has intensified Gingrich's second problem: the luxury of opposition. Demonising Bill Clinton as a fancy campaigner who made electoral promises he knew he couldn't keep, Gingrich seems not to have realised that he might be setting an identical trap for himself. His simplistic, populist set of promises - the Contract With America - was a brilliant campaign prop, but also a bright and bulky hostage to fortune, in providing voters and journalists with a handy checklist of his success in office. So far, few ticks have been achieved.

Third, Gingrich looks like the latest political victim of what might be called the fallacy of electoral cynicism. It is widely believed that contemporary voters are hard, knowing, suspicious, sophisticated. Thus Bush in 1988, and Clinton and Major four years later, all assumed, mistakenly, that voters understood that a candidate made promises - on tax, for example - purely to get elected: in office, they might not fulfil them. In fact, it seems likely that insecure and fearful electorates are more credulous, naive and hopeful towards alternative leaders than at any time in democratic history. Many Americans seem genuinely to have believed in Gingrich, and their disappointment has been loud and violent. They never thought the "Contract With America" was mere metaphor.

Gingrich's fourth problem has been the media scrutiny to which leaders are now subjected. Here he deserves no sympathy at all. His campaign held the clear implication that he, and Republicans generally, were morally and ethically superior to President Clinton, with his complex sex life and knotty past financial affairs. At the time of playing the character card, Gingrich must have known that the messy circumstances of the end of his first marriage might be played out in public.And can he really have thought that voters would not look askance at his sudden signing of a multimillion-dollar book deal with Rupert Murdoch?

That deal, although now abandoned, is responsible - along with other suggestions of entrepreneurial exploitation of his political fame - for much of the recent public hostility towards Gingrich.

I wonder, then, if the Tories should get quite so excited about the Newt 'n' John ticket. Right-wing dining clubs might chuckle at some of Gingrich's rhetoric, such as building more orphanages to get single mothers off benefit, but that kind of stuff has proved too extreme, even in America.

And as for electoral advice, forget it. Newt Gingrich knows nothing whatsoever about victory against the odds, which is the challenge for John Major. His store of political know-how consists almost solely of how to win as an evens bet on a tide of revulsion against incumbents. The most recent data Newt has accumulated concerns, as we have seen, the speed with which the capital of popularity can bleed away in office.

So the Speaker of the House has no information of plausible worth to John Major in his current plight - unless, of course, the Prime Minister is making the visit not for tactical advice but cathartic illustration of what might happen to, say, a charismatic British opposition leader who seemed peculiarly in tune with the public mood and who looked set to achieve some kind of ideological and moral revolution.

The story of Newt Gingrich - from hero to nearly-zero in less than 100 days - is not, I think, a story for John Major at all, but one which Tony Blair might usefully consider each night before he says his prayers.

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