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PERSPECTIVE ON POLITICS : Gingrich's Window of Opportunity : A revisionist look at the much-maligned Republican leader and his quest to be majority leader of the House.

November 08, 1994|JAMES P. PINKERTON | James P. Pinkerton is a lecturer at the Graduate School of Political Management at George Washington University.

On Sept. 27, Newt Gingrich and the House Republicans issued their now-notorious "Contract with America," a 10-plank platform including tax and spending cuts, a balanced-budget amendment, legal reform and term limits. Predictably, President Clinton and the Democrats pounced, labeling it "Voodoo 2," and "Reagan Redux," a budget-busting, job-exporting "Contract on America."

The media reaction has been just as harsh: "Broken Contract," snarled the New Republic. "Duplicitous propaganda," editorialized the New York Times. The double-barreled barrage is clearly taking its toll on Republican prospects; today the voters finally get their say.

Yet whether the Republicans are triumphant or trampled, one thing is certain: the charge that the contract is just a neo-Reaganite vote-grubbing ploy is wrong. The contract has emerged from Gingrich's brow after a lifetime of rumination and reflection. And Gingrich is no Gipper nostalgic--he is an unconservative conservative, impatient with the past, eager to bring the "quality revolution" that is storming the private sector into the sleepy public sector. Even if Gingrich is merely the minority leader in the upcoming 104th Congress rather than Speaker of the House, his vision of transformation through technology, of a post-bureaucratic new New Deal, is sure to help shape American politics for the rest of the decade.

Most politicians seem to have no higher goal than energetic constituent service and endless reelection. Gingrich is different. He has built a national grass-roots following on his one big idea: The 20th-Century welfare state will not stand. Does that make him a radical? Responds Gingrich: "I'm unwilling to accept the boundaries and norms of the decaying Establishment."

Gingrich's Bigthink recalls another revolutionary--his own staff freely uses the adjective Leninist to describe him. Gingrich is no Bolshevik, but he plots and prepares like one. In his 16 years in Congress, Gingrich has created his own vanguard of groups with names like COS, GOPAC and the Progress and Freedom Foundation. The cyber-era equivalents of Lenin's agitprop pamphlets are Gingrich's audio and videotapes, distributed to Republican candidates and cadres nationwide. Gingrich's hot, apocalyptic talk--he recently called the Clinton Administration "the enemy of normal Americans"--aims to spark the grass-roots to insurrection.

But Gingrich's inspiration came not from Marx but from a visit to Verdun. An Army brat growing up on military bases in Western Europe, Gingrich had wanted to be a zookeeper. But on that World War I battlefield, he saw the glassed-in ossuary with the unidentifiable remains of 100,000 men, just some of the 1.3 million who died there. That persuaded him that blundering political leadership can plummet whole nations into the abyss.

Gingrich went from the big historical picture to the even bigger tapestry of the imagination. Science fiction is a key to understanding the Newtonian universe. Two of his favorite works are Isaac Asimov's "Foundation" trilogy and Frank Herbert's "Dune" chronicles; both are multicentury epics of wax and wane. A decade ago, Gingrich was an "Atari Republican" who thought that technology could shortcut earthbound cultural concerns. His 1984 book, "Window of Opportunity," argued the urgency of the Reagan "Star Wars" program, which he folded into a larger brief on the importance of American space supremacy.

But with the Cold War over, Gingrich fears that the long struggle against social chaos is being lost. His oft-repeated jeremiad--"Our civilization cannot survive with 12-year-olds having babies, 15-year-olds killing each other, 17-year-olds dying of AIDS, 18-year-olds getting diplomas they cannot read and 25-year-olds who have never held a job"--could have been spoken by Children's Defense Fund President Marian Wright Edelman.

Gingrich, however, believes that this plague of pathologies comes because, not in spite of, the bureaucratic welfare state. Determined to replace the Great Society with an "opportunity society," Gingrich is reaching into the heart of the welfare system to pluck out the votes and moral authority of the damned, the dispossessed and the despised. It is an audacious strategy, a mix of idealism and calculation designed to split the poor from their bureaucratic overseers. Gingrich strongly supports school vouchers; for him the liberation of inner-city schoolchildren to pursue better learning would happily coincide with the annihilation of the National Education Assn., a pillar of the Democratic Party.

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