Clinton: Mushing his Message

March 18, 1993

As Congress takes its first votes today on President Clinton's $16.2 billion "stimulus" package, its importance as an economic lever has been pretty well discounted. Not even Democratic leaders can argue with a straight face that such a sum, in the context of a $1.5 trillion federal budget and a $6 trillion U.S. economy, will cause any more of a rumble than a Howard County earthquake.

Its import is political. The new president wants to show he can force his will on party faithful, and his enforcers on Capitol Hill have transformed the issue into a matter of party loyalty. We have no doubt the White House will come off with a victory, at least in the House. But a victory at what cost?

Most opinion pollsters report that Americans are ready for sacrifice if they are convinced new taxes and cutbacks on federal spending will really slow the growth in the national debt. This is the essential finding upon which Mr. Clinton has drafted his bold $500 billion plan to reduce annual deficits over the next five years. But by combining it with spending package to assuage traditional Democratic constituencies, he is mushing his message.

A few quixotic Democrats are trying to save the president from himself. Rep. Charles Stenholm, D-Texas, has proposed an amendment that would require any money in the $16.2 billion package that is spent after the current fiscal year ends October 30 will have to be offset by cuts in other programs. A similar amendment may do better in the Senate. Sen. John Breaux, D-La., claims 15 of the 57 Democrats want to stop this unnecessary spending proposal; combined with solid Republican support, this would be enough to force the White House to compromise for its own good.

The point will be hammered home Sunday in much clearer fashion when Ross Perot takes to the telewaves with his campaign to slash the federal deficit. He is calling for $2 in spending cuts for every dollar in new taxes, ironically an approach favored by Budget Director Leon Panetta until he was shot down in White House inner-councils. The Clinton economic package does not even achieve a dollar-for-dollar tax-spending cut ratio.

For President Clinton, this should be an important consideration. He was elected with only 43 percent of the vote and needs support from the 19 percent of the electorate who backed Mr. Perot.

The president's economic package represented a good start, provided it is augmented by a credible program to curtail runaway health care spending. But by pretending his "stimulus" program will sustain the current recovery, Mr. Clinton is garbling the image he wishes to project to the country. The American people are ready to take the castor oil; they need no sugar on the side.

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