President Clinton, in outlining his hastily marshaled 10-year budget plan, has taken the first real step toward negotiations with congressional Republicans to reach a goal most Americans say they strongly support: a balanced budget.
Clinton's sketch of his ideas for cutting spending by more than $1 trillion over the next decade came Tuesday evening in an uncharacteristically brief national address.
Many Democrats in Congress, as well as some members of the White House staff, had opposed both the timing and substance of Clinton's gambit. In their view it's far more politically productive right now to let the Republicans stick their necks out with proposed detailed program cuts than it is for the President to take a seat at the bargaining table and start showing his cards. We disagree. In this case we think Clinton's instincts were absolutely sound.
The public has clearly grown weary and increasingly scared of the cumulative burden that endless deficits load onto future generations. If only in the abstract, the public wants expenditures brought into balance with revenues. The problem lies in trying to find a consensus on where to concretely cut programs to achieve that balance.
Bills passed by both the House and Senate and now awaiting reconciliation by a conference committee, as well as Clinton's own plan, give primacy to restraining the growth in spending on Medicare and Medicaid. These are priority targets because they are where costs are spinning most out of control.
Additionally, all three deficit-reduction plans carry the political sweetener of tax cuts. But only the Senate's approach, which would defer most tax cuts until the machinery for getting balanced budgets is actually in place, has any claim to being fiscally responsible. The public, polls show, elevates budget balancing above tax cutting. Here is a case where the people's wisdom far exceeds that of their representatives.
"It's time to clean up this mess," the President said in Tuesday's address. Indeed it is. But no mess has ever been swept away by wishful rhetoric or election year promises. The bipartisan goal of a balanced budget, whether within seven years or 10 years, means nothing until legislation to get there is negotiated, passed and signed.
As Laura D'Andrea Tyson, the President's chief economic adviser, conceded Wednesday in an interview with The Times, the Democrats must first resolve their own differences over the tactics and specifics of budget balancing. Then the full bipartisan effort must proceed. Can our leaders do it? After so much has been said, after so much has been promised, the public could well prove unforgiving if they fail.