It's not your father's political machine

April 30, 1996|By Richard Reeves

WASHINGTON -- Walking onto the set of ''Capitol Watch,'' a political TV yak-fest broadcast from a warren of offices and studios spread through three townhouses here -- ''NET, Political NewsTalk Network'' reads the sign -- I thought the whole thing might be a put-on, a right-wing ''Politically Incorrect.''

Two bright young men were on the air, one named Brad, who looked like Dana Carvey, and one named Mike, who looked like an agitated Steve Martin. They were in the conservative equivalent of shirtsleeves: no jacket, but cuffs buttoned.

Controlled shouter

The one called Mike was a controlled shouter, saying:

''Today Medical Savings Accounts bit the dust! The Senate killed it. . . . Six weenie Republicans did it. Weenies is what they are. . . . Cohen of Maine, who is retiring -- the chicken! Hatfield of Oregon, retiring -- chicken! Kassebaum of Kansas, retiring -- chicken! She'd rather see children die of AIDS than get a bad story in the Washington Blade.. . . There are three who will still be around, and they should hear from you. Bond of Missouri. Gorton of Washington. Chafee of Rhode Island. . . .''

NET is an around-the-clock cable and satellite dish broadcasting service in the homes of 10 million or 11 million Americans -- presumably conservatives looking for their daily anger fix or marching orders.

The NET day begins with ''Mitchells in the Morning,'' Dan and Nancy, a handsome young couple who begin their days on air at 8 a.m., chatting and fielding viewer calls on Whitewater, Waco and Ruby Ridge.

They attack ''Republican quislings'' who deviate from the straight conservative line. They are early birds getting worms before going off to their day jobs in the conservative establishment, at the Heritage Foundation and Citizens for a Sound Economy.

Conventional wisdom

Meanwhile, in the city outside, the conventional wisdom is that President Clinton and liberals, or at least Democrats who once were liberals, are in the ascendancy and the conservatism trumpeted by Speaker Newt Gingrich is collapsing.

That may be true, for now. In fact, NET insists it is not a Republican network and has distanced itself from Mr. Gingrich. A series featuring the speaker last year received so much publicity that the network was concerned it was being perceived as just another appendage of the self-styled revolutionary from Georgia. So they canceled the speaker.

''They,'' the ones with the power here, are post-partisan right-wing ideologues, beginning with NET's founder, Paul Weyrich of the Free Congress Foundation. The walls feature photos of other conservative heavies involved in the shows, Gary Bauer of the Family Research Council, Ralph Reed of the Christian Coalition and Ed Crane of the libertarian Cato Foundation. They and NET itself intend to be around here longer than Mr. Gingrich and other voter-dependent Republicans.

''Friends'' without laughs

The National Rifle Association has its own NET program, ''On Target.'' Mr. Weyrich does call-in interview shows. Columnist Robert Novak does interviews, too. ''Youngbloods'' is something like ''Friends,'' without the laughs or big budget. There is even an Amtrak show, promoting train travel.

Looking at the schedule, I realized that NET is an energetic demonstration that Democrats, liberals and lefties are still on the back roads far from the information highway.

On the other hand, the right one, Mr. Weyrich and others are building their own ideological turnpikes. They already have an infrastructure that will survive voter earthquakes. If the Gingrich wave ebbs, they will survive and continue to work to dominate both the Republican Party and the national political dialogue.

A political bargain

The cost of creating NET, I am told, was in the $10 million range. That is not a large amount of money to conservatives. I would consider it a political bargain in a country that has had disorganized political parties for years now.

Hour by hour, with call-ins, faxes, mail and e-mail, NET is organizing lists and agendas of conservatives ready to make some effort in the politics of the next century. That's the point.

Newt Gingrich may come and go. Bill Clinton may come and go, as Jimmy Carter did. But I have a hunch that Brad and Mike will be around for a long time. The full names, by the way are Brad Keena and Mike Schwartz.

Political machines, of course, are dead -- old-style machines. But this is not your father's machine; this is a prototype of early 21st-century political organizations.

Richard Reeves is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 4/30/96

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