Eye of Newt

November 15, 1994|By Anthony Lewis

Boston -- WITH VICTORY, would Newt Gingrich move from street fighter to statesman? It took only a few days to learn the answer: No.

As prospective speaker of the House, he quickly wrote a letter to the present speaker, Tom Foley, warning Democrats not to hide or destroy any official documents.

Of course he did not think the famously honorable Mr. Foley was going to purloin documents. It was just a way to plant the idea of a Democratic conspiracy: a way to continue his war on the opposition.

Before the election he said President Clinton was "the enemy of normal Americans." Afterward, he explained that by "normal" he had meant "middle class." Sure.

Even some of his aides were shocked by his comment on the case of Susan Smith, the South Carolina woman charged with killing her two children. The way to prevent such horrors, Mr. Gingrich said, was to vote Republican.

In an interview soon after the Republican sweep he said the president and Mrs. Clinton were "counterculture McGovern-niks." Yep, they wear beads and have opted out of ambition in our competitive world.

Slash and burn, knife and smear: The Gingrich instincts are unrelenting.

It is hardly news that Newt Gingrich is not Mr. Nice Guy in politics. But his signals that he is going to stick to the Rottweiler game matter a lot. They give us a preview of what he is going to try to do with a Republican Congress.

There was a lot of talk about bipartisanship last week in Washington: working together for the good of the country and so on. But that has nothing to do with Newt Gingrich. His object will be, in everything he does, to advance the cause of the Republican Party -- and himself.

His aim as speaker, therefore, will be to churn out legislation that puts Bill Clinton in an embarrassing position. It is not hard to imagine some that would fulfill that purpose.

Welfare reform will be near the top of the list. Mr. Clinton campaigned for reform and has proposed legislation designed to force recipients to work after a maximum of two years on the rolls. But Gingrich operates from a different premise.

Mr. Gingrich says that welfare, and some Great Society measures, have contributed to all kinds of social evils, in particular the rising rate of illegitimacy. (He ignores the fact that illegitimacy has risen sharply in Britain after many years of Conservative governments.) He wants the children of poor mothers denied welfare to be put in orphanages.

In all likelihood, then, a Republican House will pass a far more stringent, indeed punitive version of welfare reform. If the Senate concurs, Mr. Clinton will be confronted with a difficult choice. If he vetoes a mean-minded bill, Mr. Gingrich will surely re-label him the enemy of normal Americans.

Race is another area where we can expect a Gingrich demarche. Resentment of affirmative action on behalf of minorities and women in employment was apparently a significant factor in leading a high proportion of white men to vote Republican last week.

A Republican Congress could well legislate against existing affirmative-action rules, perhaps even to the extent of intervening in cases now before the courts.

The basic Gingrich platform is economic, featuring massive tax cuts. But tax cuts are a complicated business, threatening higher deficits that would worry Wall Street. The advantage of the ideas for social legislation is that they play to the fears of the Gingrich constituency. They draw a line between Us and Them. Newt Gingrich is an expert at the politics of division.

Is Bill Clinton ready to veto bills that would make this a more divided society? Will he take on the difficult job, the necessary job, of explaining that we all live in the same country and it will hurt us all to make some Americans poorer and more ignorant? Harry Truman had the courage to veto foolish anti-Communist bills at the height of the cold war. Will Bill Clinton have that kind of courage?

Anthony Lewis is a columnist for the New York Times.

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