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THE DEFICIT : Budget Balancing: Clinton Infuriates Almost Everyone

June 18, 1995|William Schneider | William Schneider, a contributing editor to Opinion, is a political analyst for CNN

WASHINGTON — Here's a scenario. The President is facing a budget crisis. He abandons his earlier strategy in an effort to reach a compromise with a Congress controlled by the other party. That enrages his supporters, who accuse him of betraying them on an issue of principle.

Sound familiar? That's because it's all happened before. Exactly five years ago.

President George Bush, June, 1990. The President defends his decision to renounce his "Read my lips, no new taxes" campaign pledge. Bush warns that the alternative to a budget deal will be "Draconian cuts in defense, student grants and a wide array of other necessary domestic services." To avoid this, Bush said, "Tough decisions must be made."

President Bill Clinton, June, 1995. The President defends his decision to offer a balanced-budget proposal that includes cuts in projected spending on Medicare and other social programs. To "those who have suggested it might actually benefit one side or the other politically if we had gridlock and ended this fiscal year without a budget," Clinton responds: "That would be bad for our country, and we have to do everything we can to avoid it."

When Bush agreed to a tax hike in 1990, Republicans complained the President was selling them out. Congressional Democrats are saying the same thing now about their President.

Why is Clinton doing this? He's using the same argument Bush used: The deficit made me do it. If the President waited too long, the GOP budget might make its way through Congress. The President would be faced with what the White House calls a "train wreck" scenario. The President could either sign a bill with devastating budget cuts and irresponsible tax cuts. Or he could veto the bill and shut down the federal government.

The political landscape is littered with the bodies of politicians who tried to sell tough deficit reduction. Bush got his head handed to him in 1992. Walter F. Mondale tried to run on deficit reduction in 1984. Remember this? "President Reagan will raise your taxes. So will I. He won't tell you. I just did." Exit Mondale.

The deficit was Paul E. Tsongas's issue in the 1992 Democratic primaries: "I am not running for Santa Claus." It was Ross Perot's issue in the general election. But Santa Claus is a pretty popular guy. Clinton ran against the politics of austerity and whipped Tsongas and Perot.

Then when Clinton took office in 1993, he shifted gears and adopted deficit reduction as his cause. The new President told the country, "We just have to face the fact that to make the changes our country needs, more Americans must contribute today so that all Americans can be better off tomorrow." A pleasantly surprised Tsongas said, "The person giving that speech is not the same person I campaigned against."

Last year, Clinton pointed with pride to the fact that, for the first time since Harry S. Truman, the deficit has gone down three years in a row. The voters showed themselves supremely ungrateful for that achievement in the 1994 midterm.

So in February, Clinton said, in effect, "To hell with it." He sent Congress a budget with no further deficit reduction. His strategy was to let the GOP make the painful cuts. And take the heat.

Then on Tuesday night, in what Democrats are attacking as a failure of nerve, the President shifted gears once again and took up the cause of a balanced budget. Cries of betrayal were heard in the land. A President who has had four different deficit policies in four years does have a certain credibility problem.

So why did Clinton reverse himself?

Evil influences, say many Democrats. Some blame Vice President Al Gore, a centrist who wants to take over the Democratic Party after Clinton and curb the influence of congressional liberals. Most see Dick Morris, an elusive political strategist who has a longstanding relationship with Clinton, as the White House Rasputin. Not only has Morris been advising Clinton, but he's also--gasp!--a Republican whose clients include Senate Majority Whip Trent Lott (R-Miss.).

The most plausible theory is the simplest. Clinton did it because he wanted to. He's a policy wonk. He has a solution for every problem. He even has solutions for which there are no known problems. He can't stand the fact that a major policy debate is going on and he's not a serious player. Clinton's earlier budget proposal--proposing no further deficit reduction--was rejected 99-0 by the Senate. How's that for irrelevance?

But Clinton's also a shrewd politician. The balanced-budget cause has never paid off politically. Why should it now?

For one thing, Mondale, Bush and Clinton all proposed tax hikes. The issue on the table is spending cuts. And cutting the size of government was the mandate of the 1994 election. A lot of politicians are betting it's safer now to talk about painful budget cuts than it was a few years ago. Elections, particularly dramatic ones like 1994, make a difference.

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