Down on the Downtrodden

Newt Gingrich sets off a race to cut government spending for the poor, but he may be misreading America's mood

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As somebody who likes to play rough with words, Newt Gingrich, the incoming Speaker of the House, can be counted on to make speaking a big part of the job. This, after all, is a man whose political-action committee once drew up a list of labels -- sick, pathetic, bizarre, insecure -- for Republican candidates to use against their opponents. But even Gingrich seems to be having second thoughts these days about the tone of the Republican revolution he is leading. Lately he has been arranging for members of Congress to hear talks by Morris Shechtman, a conservative management consultant and psychotherapist, who advises them on how to advance the Republican agenda without looking heartless. For example, he tells them that since people still think "caring for" others is good, government programs should be described as "caretaking," which sounds paternalistic.

So maybe all Ebenezer Scrooge needed was a spin doctor, someone who would warn him to stop calling the Christmas spirit "humbug" and reterm it "misguided compassion." But Gingrich is right to be concerned about whether the G.O.P. revolution is seen as spirited or mean-spirited. House Republicans have come roaring into Washington promising not just to remake welfare but to pull down the whole edifice of federal poverty programs. They say that in doing so, they are merely carrying out the mandate of the voters who sent them to Congress. To the extent that there is clear voter sentiment for change, they have a point. But in their unbridled willingness to go after immigrants and the poor, the new House firebrands may be getting out ahead of the public mood.

That's because the mood is mixed. Even in a year of mostly favorable economic indicators -- a 2.6% inflation rate, 3.9% third-quarter growth, 5.6% unemployment for November -- a middle class fearful of losing its economic footing is plainly of a mind to hunker down. In a TIME/CNN poll last week, 61% of those surveyed agreed with the statement that "the way things are today, people have to worry more about themselves and their families and less about helping others." That's a sentiment that speaks not so much of the Christmas season as of the dead of winter, marked by something dark, bristling and a little chilly. Given enough encouragement, a good many Americans might be persuaded to vent their anxieties upon the classes just beneath them.

Yet the poll also found that on specific issues of welfare and immigration reform, there's not much support for the harshest measures. Fully 78% of those questioned thought the welfare system was in need of a fundamental shake-up, and 52% thought government should spend less on it. But 52% also said it would be unfair to end payments after two years to people who had no other sources of income -- 38% didn't mind the idea -- and majorities opposed denying welfare benefits to unwed teen mothers or to children whose fathers could not be identified. All of which are proposals in the House G.O.P. "Contract with America."

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