Magazine article The Spectator

Conservatives Saying Nothing

Magazine article The Spectator

Conservatives Saying Nothing

Article excerpt

New Hampshire

WHAT is the Republican party for? Unlike their enfeebled Tory counterparts at Westminster, the GOP is, theoretically, in charge of Congress: they have a majority. The trouble is you'd never know it. When the President's pants self-detonated in January, a curious thing happened: not only did he rise in the polls, but so did his Congressional opponents. Mr Clinton's political coat-tails proved of no use to fellow Democrats in the 1996 elections, but his political shirt-tails - or elasticated boxer waistband - have wafted Congressional Republicans to their best numbers in years.

Unfortunately for Washington's polldriven culture, no one can figure out what these numbers actually mean. Taken at their most literal, they mean that the public approves of what the Republican Congress is doing. But the Republican Congress isn't doing anything. So the party leadership has concluded, ergo, that more of nothing is what the people want; the sooner any last vestige of an agenda has shuffled off, the sooner they'll be a shoo-in for the Congressional elections this November.

The man who's supposed to interpret the polls and generally divine the entrails for the party is the political consultant Frank Luntz. Every week, without fail, Luntz takes time out of his hectic schedule to meet with ordinary people in a shopping mall. Of course, millions of others do this, too: in less evolved political cultures, it's called 'life'. But the Republican leadership pays Luntz to meet with ordinary people so it doesn't have to. He then reports back that the party's representatives should, say, refrain from attacking teachers' unions because, according to his data, when you attack teachers' unions, 63 per cent of soccer moms don't hear the word 'unions' but only the word 'teachers' - and teachers are something warm and fluffy that every politician is supposed to be in favour of. Rather, Republicans should stick to his 222-page crib sheet called The Language of the 21st Century. `Everything in bold is meant to be written or said - word for word - in your speeches, press releases and brochures,' he commands. `Education is about the future ... I don't want one child to fall through the cracks.' No, indeed. Instead, the Republican party has fallen through the cracks.

I was on a panel with Luntz once at Paramount Pictures; when we were asked for our thoughts on sex and violence, some of us were relaxed, some of us opposed, but only Luntz had the definitive answer - that polls showed 57 per cent of Americans were in favour of three drive-by shootings per motion picture (I quote from memory). Later, I was in the bar, enjoying a late-night cocktail with fellow members of the vast right-wing conspiracy, when Luntz wandered in. John O'Sullivan, editor of National Review, called out, `What 11 you have to drink, Frank?' The poor fellow looked flummoxed, desperately straining to crunch the numbers: 46 per cent of Americans were in favour of a brandy Alexander and a packet of beer nuts, but 39 per cent of Americans would prefer a banana daiquiri and a cilantro dip.... He stood there for a few moments, apparently bewildered by the very notion of a personal taste, and then tottered off to bed.

I'm aware that 72 per cent of focus groups would say I'm reading too much into this, but I found it very telling. As Luntz himself said to Capital Style magazine last year, 'I am a focus group. I can synthesise for you. After I get out of a focus group, I, Frank Luntz, cease to exist.' If only. In January, in the first great Monica blow-out, Luntz sent a memorandum to Republicans instructing them to `refrain from commenting on the latest allegation against President Clinton'. According to the poll guru, `If you comment, you will take a non-partisan, non-political situation and make it both partisan and political.' The leadership did as it was told. Besides, they were already being loftily non-partisan about the looming showdown with Saddam: if politics stops at the water's edge, surely it should also stop at the President's fly. …

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