The real conservative revolution

January 17, 1995|By Cokie & Steven V. Roberts

NEWT GINGRICH'S coronation as the new House Speaker has stirred up a lot of talk about revolutions in Washington, but the essence of Gingrichism still is not well understood. Most of the ideas in his "Contract With America" -- from a balanced-budget amendment to middle-class tax relief -- have been around for years.

Mr. Gingrich's truly original contribution involves how those ideas are communicated. Over the last decade, he has been a major force in changing the way Americans learn about politics.

The core of Gingrichism is the belief that the Washington-based media are dominated by liberal elitists who will always sabotage the conservative cause if given half a chance.

Mr. Gingrich's idea was simple: Don't give them the chance. Communicate directly to the voters through a combination of new technologies -- like cable TV and computers -- and old ones put to new uses, like talk radio and direct mail.

Speaking on Rush Limbaugh's radio show recently, Mr. Gingrich assessed his strategy: "Without C-SPAN, without talk-radio shows, without all the alternative media, I don't think we'd have won. The classic elite media would have distorted our message."

While C-SPAN and Mr. Limbaugh are the most visible alternatives used by Mr. Gingrich & Co., they are far from the only ones.

Richard Viguerie, a pioneer in direct-mail techniques, notes that many of Mr. Gingrich's favorite forms of communication -- newsletters, faxes, computers, church bulletins -- come "flying in under the radar screen of the traditional media." As a result, the information they transmit goes unfiltered and unscrutinized by independent journalists.

Now, Mr. Gingrich is preparing to use the same techniques that helped elect a GOP majority to pass his legislative program. Consider what he's done already:

* TV cameras now cover all congressional meetings and briefings. This builds on one of Mr. Gingrich's earliest insights: C-SPAN coverage of Congress meant that conservatives no longer had to rely on the network news to communicate with supporters.

* All congressional documents will now be available on-line. While Mr. Gingrich said it was "nutty" to consider a tax credit for laptop computers, he was only half-kidding. For his long-range plan to work, lower-income voters can't be priced out of the technology market.

* Radio talk-show hosts broadcast from the Capitol on Mr. Gingrich's inauguration day and will have regular access to the speaker and his lieutenants. Conservative lawmakers have long worked closely with Mr. Limbaugh and other talkmeisters, feeding them battle plans and inside information, and talk-show listeners voted almost 2-to-1 Republican last fall.

* The day after Republicans took control of Capitol Hill, the party started running paid TV commercials urging support for a balanced-budget amendment. Further ads are planned as other issues come to the fore.

* The GOP produces its own TV interview show and is negotiating with cable networks to pick it up and broaden their audience.

* All these innovations have some very positive effects. The more people are involved in, and informed about, politics, the better. But there are two serious downsides.

One is the notion, promoted by both Messrs. Gingrich and Limbaugh, that the "alternative" media are the only source of truth and that the "establishment press" is totally corrupt and unreliable. This strategy seeks to discredit the major media in the same way they have discredited Congress.

Most journalists, like most lawmakers, are honorable, hard-working people dedicated to their professions. But if Mr. Gingrich can convince voters otherwise he can then inoculate himself against criticism from journalists and politicians alike.

More serious is the logical conclusion of Gingrichism: a sort of direct democracy where voters sit in front of their TV sets and push buttons to register their opinions on everything from lowering taxes to controlling guns.

But as Proposition 187 in California proved last fall, government by plebiscite is inherently unstable, too subject to the winds of passion or the whims of demagogues.

The British politician Edmund Burke said 220 years ago that a representative betrays his constituents if he only listens but never leads, if he shows compliance but no courage.

In this age of talk-back, direct-dial, in-your-face politics, judgment and civility are hard to find in high places, but they are more important than ever.

Cokie Roberts is an ABC News commentator. Her husband, Steven V. Roberts, is a senior writer for U.S. News & World Report.

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