Dr. Clinton prescribes bad-tasting medicine ON POLITICS

JACK GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

February 17, 1993|By JACK GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

WASHINGTON -- That was Dr. Clinton's best bedside manner you witnessed Monday night in the president's visit into the living rooms of Americans suffering from a severe case of deficitis.

He told them that they were going to get better, but they would have to take some bad-tasting medicine in the process. However, he emphasized to most Americans that somebody else would have to swallow the worst-tasting stuff -- that "70 percent will be paid by those who make more than $100,000 a year."

As for the remaining 30 percent, Dr. Clinton said he was sorry he would have to ask the other Americans in lower income brackets to take a somewhat milder prescription, but the deficit turned out to be much worse than he thought. This was a far cry from those days in wintry New Hampshire during the 1992 primary when he was promising a middle-class tax cut and castigating former Sen. Paul Tsongas for not doing the same.

The Bush campaign that ran television ads last fall saying Clinton's numbers did not add up and that he would have to tax far more Americans than just those who made over $200,000 -- that was the number he was using for a time -- will be singing their I-told-you-sos.

But the basic difference between President Clinton and the man he beat on Nov. 3 is that George Bush was foolhardy in repeatedly saying so emphatically, "Read my lips, no new taxes." Clinton explicitly said he would never make such a pledge when circumstances might force him to go back on it.

Bush's prescription for the nation's domestic ills, like Ronald Reagan's before him, was to say no bad medicine was needed. Reagan, whose own bedside manner was unmatched, simply slipped about a dozen tax increases in when voters weren't paying attention, like powdered medicine in a patient's glass.

If there is any political virtue in Clinton's bad tax medicine, it is bTC that he is administering it when his stock remains high with the voters and he has political capital to spend. Bush never was willing to spend any of his on domestic problems, even when his handling of the Persian Gulf War sent his popularity sky-high.

In a sense, Clinton is gambling on the possibility that Ross Perot uncovered a public attitude in the country that most politicians in recent years have been afraid to test. That is, when you tell them the truth about a major problem and what needs to be done, they will hold their noses and take the medicine prescribed.

For all of Perot's quirkiness, he did lay out the cataclysmic dimensions of the budget deficit and its economic ramifications, and about 19 percent of the electorate appeared to have bought his message of "no pain, no gain." It is reasonable to assume that many Clinton and Bush voters accepted it as well, but couldn't bring themselves to vote for Perot for other reasons.

Not only did Dr. Clinton prescribe bad-tasting medicine in his TV chat, he also did what real doctors seldom do: He told the patient that his previous physician had slipped him a Mickey, and that was a big part of the problem. Over the past 12 years, he said, resident physicians Reagan and Bush "declared that government is the problem, that fairness to the middle class is less important than keeping taxes low on the wealthy, that government can do nothing about our deepest problems."

This has been the standard Democratic argument against the Reagan Revolution. The Republicans choose to characterize it as "soak the rich," an expression Democrats have been reluctant to use as Americans generally have prospered. In the crunch, Clinton has declined to go all out in hitting the well-off, choosing instead to tell middle-income voters that "for the first time in more than a decade, we're all in this together."

This assurance is not likely to give much comfort to those middle-income voters who cast their ballots for Clinton in the expectation of a tax cut. But for the first time perhaps since John Kennedy's famous "ask not what your country can do for you" summons to service, a new American president has called on the voters explicitly to put the national well-being ahead of their own.

How the public responds in the next days may go a long way to determining Clinton's success or failure. Another question is whether Congress will swallow Dr. Clinton's medicine.

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