Inside the First 100 Days

September 13, 1995|By MONA CHAREN

WASHINGTON — Washington. -- The first hundred days of the Republican majority in Congress have almost entered mythology. Looking back, we tend to recall House Republican troops marching in lock step to enact the Contract With America (Senate disappointments would come later).

But as ''Inside the Republican Revolution,'' a PBS documentary to air tonight, reminds us, the outcome was not so certain at the time.

Producer-director Michael Pack was able to take his cameras pretty much everywhere during those hundred days. The result is a true insider's view of how things work on Capitol Hill. And as host Donald Lambro argues, understanding Capitol Hill is the key to understanding power in Washington because the momentum has shifted, probably decisively, away from presidential leadership toward congressional dominance.

Some of the most interesting tidbits offered to viewers concern leaders of both parties, but especially the Democrats, crafting media strategy. If you want to know what David Bonior, D-Mich., Pat Schroeder, D-Colo., and Dick Gephardt, D-Mo., are doing behind those closed doors, you may be surprised to find that they are watching videotapes of the previous night's news broadcasts, the better to fashion their sound bites for the day.

Republicans too gather to shape their message. In one scene, John Boehner, R-Ohio, advises John Kasich, R-Ohio, to stay away from arcane budget talk. Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich seems always to be popping in on talk-radio programs.

Some aspects of this documentary will perplex regular viewers of PBS. There is, for example, a telling scene between a journalist from Newsday and Rep. David McIntosh, R-Ind. Mr. McIntosh was attempting to defend the Republican proposals to change the school-lunch program, and the journalist was just as clearly attacking the Republican plan. It was but one mild example -- the producer could have picked from thousands -- of the persistent media bias against the Contract With America.

The vignette revealed something else as well, though. It revealed the unfortunate shallowness of some Republicans in the face of liberal at tacks. Asked to identify what he didn't like about the school-lunch program, Mr. McIntosh could only repeat, three times, that there were too many federal bureaucrats involved in the program and the states could do it better.

But there are many more reasons to be skeptical about the school-lunch program than that. How about the fact that 59 percent of America's school children are participating in this program? Does that make sense? Only about 15 percent of America's children are poor (too many, to be sure, but that's another matter).

The school-lunch program is a perfect symbol of why we have a deficit problem. The Democrats find a cause like hungry kids, create a huge program to help feed them hot lunches at school (in addition to giving their parents enough food stamps to be sure that they are fed, but never mind), and then keep expanding the program indefinitely so that in a few years, 59 percent of the kids in the country are getting subsidized meals.

Any attempt to cut back is excoriated by the Democrats and their allies in the press as a ''mean-spirited attack'' on children. An obliging pollster asks questions like ''Do you think lunches for hungry children should be cut to balance the budget?'' and gets an 82 percent negative reaction. The Republicans are left reeling.

The school-lunch debate was the low point of the first hundred days, the only time when the Democrats successfully delivered body blows to the ascendant Republicans. For the most part, the Republicans were skilled and disciplined about getting their contract enacted.

But as the bigger battles over the federal budget loom, Republicans would do well to revisit what went wrong with the school-lunch debate because the Democrats have not changed and the press has not changed. It isn't enough to repeat endlessly, ''But we're not really cutting anything.'' The country would welcome intelligent cuts, properly explained. But that will require even more courage and more resolve than were demanded of Republicans during the first 100 days.

Mona Charen is a syndicated columnist.

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