Strap on your seat belts: The spinning is beginning.
The first 100 days of Republican control of Congress may not end until April 13, but both parties are launching a propaganda drive to declare it a stunning success or disastrous failure.
Advocacy groups are hitting the airwaves with television and radio ads praising or condemning parts of the “Contract With America.” And a torrent of media appraisals is about to wash over the land.
House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., got a major boost when CBS and CNBC announced they will join CNN in carrying his half-hour address on the Republican agenda next Friday evening. This free chunk of prime time, traditionally accorded only to presidents, is an unprecedented coup for a legislative leader. NBC and ABC have declined to broadcast the speech.
The Democrats hope to steal the spotlight by striking first. The party’s top politicians and their liberal and labor allies are organizing a series of speeches, rallies and commercials around their theme of legislative winners (the rich) and losers (everyone else). “It’s a major mobilization,” said Democratic media consultant Frank Greer.
Republicans and their business allies are calling up their own communications arsenal, from talk radio to Christian broadcasting, and will stage a rally at the Capitol.
“You have to focus on the positive out of the box and assign the blame for what you failed on,” said conservative publicist Craig Shirley.
The media’s 100-day ritual is usually reserved for newly inaugurated presidents. But it was inevitable this time around because House Republicans had vowed to bring their 10-point contract to a vote within the time period that has become a metaphor for dramatic action.
Now the game is to define the debate. House Republicans can boast that they passed eight of nine contract provisions, with tax cuts, the final item, to be voted on next week. But the Democrats can point to the Senate - which killed the balanced-budget amendment and is taking a more-cautious approach on tax cuts and welfare reform - in arguing that not much has changed.
Then there’s the question of whether the “Contract With America” is good for America. In a USA Today poll published Friday, 32 percent of those surveyed favored the contract, 12 percent opposed it and 47 percent still had not heard of it. At the same time, 52 percent called the first 100 days of the GOP Congress a success, while 35 percent said it was a failure and 8 percent said it is too soon to tell. Other polls have shown that Democrats have been successful in portraying Republicans as too quick to cut programs that help the poor and the middle class.
Gingrich has accused the media of “despicable demagoguery” in covering such GOP initiatives as transferring the school lunch program to the states. “It is shameful when the major newspapers of this country repeat routinely the lies of liberals who are saving the bureaucrats by using the children,” he said recently.
Some journalists agree. “Elite media coverage of the contract has been relentlessly negative,” syndicated columnist Charles Krauthammer wrote Friday.
Others dismiss the charge as overheated. “One of Gingrich’s goals is to demonize the press, just like he demonizes the Democrats,” said Evan Thomas, Newsweek’s Washington bureau chief. “It’s politically useful for him.”
While the media have shown “a mild liberal bias” in covering the contract, Thomas said, they are often just picking up the “easy sound bite” from Democrats who “accuse the Republicans of being mean to the poor.”
As President Clinton learned when support for his health-care plan crumbled, the governing party must share the microphone with all manner of opponents and critics who blast away in made-for-television fashion.
In January and February, according to the Center for Media and Public Affairs, two-thirds of the comments about Republicans on the network evening newscasts were negative. On Republican initiatives for education, abortion, taxes, school lunches and affirmative action, more than eight in 10 comments were negative.
Gingrich didn’t fare much better: Six in 10 comments about him were negative, about the same level as for Clinton, the center says.
“Virtually every issue the Republicans have taken on, they’ve gotten more bad press than good press,” said Robert Lichter, the center’s director. “Gingrich is getting clobbered just the way Clinton was. It doesn’t matter if this is liberal bias or not. The media make it hard for anyone in government to do anything.”
Tony Blankley, Gingrich’s press secretary, said Washington journalists “have been overestimating our troubles and underestimating our ability to function legislatively and resolve the inevitable blockages.”
Gingrich’s audacious move in seeking network coverage of his Friday speech seems to have paid off. CBS will carry the address as part of an hourlong special on Congress. “The determination was made that it was a newsworthy event,” said CBS spokeswoman Sandy Genelius, adding Democrats will be offered equal time.
NBC reached a different conclusion. “Generally air time is granted only for key presidential addresses, and some presidential requests are denied, especially when the subject matter is partisan in nature,” said spokeswoman Beth Comstock.
After a brief moratorium on TV interviews, Gingrich has come roaring back. He has chewed the fat in recent days with Dan Rather, Larry King and David Frost, is scheduled to appear today on “This Week with David Brinkley” and on the network morning shows next week.
Next week’s Democratic counteroffensive is being coordinated with groups representing labor, feminists, children, students, law enforcement and the environment, and includes television ads that will cost several million dollars. One ad, for the AFL-CIO, claims, “The new Congress is cutting jobs, wages, health and safety, housing for senior citizens, even school lunches … so they can give tax breaks to big business and the rich.”
An environmental coalition, including the Sierra Club and the Natural Resources Defense Council, will air ads assailing the GOP for attempting to weaken environmental laws.
Other liberal groups are joining the fray. Citizens for Tax Justice is releasing several studies on GOP tax proposals. Campus rallies are planned around the country. Planned Parenthood and the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League will stage meetings and news conferences on Henry W. Foster Jr.’s embattled nomination to become surgeon general.
The Democratic National Committee is even considering a “Prize Patrol” van that would crisscross Washington presenting checks to wealthy special interests deemed “winners” under the Republicans.
As for the politicians, Vice President Al Gore kicks off the assault Monday at the National Press Club. Tuesday, a contingent led by House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt, D-Mo., and Senate Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle, D-S.D. - linked by satellite with several Democratic governors - will castigate the contract at the Capitol.
Thursday, Rep. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., will join with police organizations to protest changes in the crime bill. And Gephardt will dissect the contract at a National Press Club luncheon Friday.
Republican strategist William Kristol says such attacks will not wash. “The American people so discount liberal appeals for compassion, and liberal claims to speak for the poor, that they are deeply skeptical of these charges that you’re taking the last crust out of the mouths of babes,” he said.
A business-oriented group called the Coalition for America’s Future has launched a $500,000 television and radio campaign in support of the GOP’s proposed tax cuts. “Our children will pay staggering taxes for our failure to control wasteful spending. … Call Congress. Hold their feet to the fire,” the TV ad says.
Members of the coalition - including the Chamber of Commerce, National Federation of Independent Businesses, National Restaurant Association and National Realtors Association - are airing radio spots tailored to their interests.
Whether the campaign-style media blitz will have any lasting effect remains to be seen. “I’m underwhelmed by the importance of the first 100 days,” Kristol said. “The average American will sensibly say, ‘Let’s see where things are after the Senate has acted.’ I don’t think they take the word of pundits opining about the GOP agenda.”