Comeuppance for Clinton

April 07, 1993

President Clinton's first big loss on Capitol Hill -- his failure to win prompt Senate passage of his $16.3 billion stimulus bill -- should teach him a lesson. Maybe next time he will be less eager to throw in his lot with pork-barrel partisans only too eager to flatten Republicans with a Democratic steamroller. Maybe next time he will listen more attentively to lawmakers who want him to be the mainstream, deficit-fighting "new kind of Democrat" he once promised to be.

It's not that the president wasn't warned. After the House and the Senate gave him party-line victories on a budget resolution even before he sent a budget to Capitol Hill, Democratic Senators David Boren of Oklahoma and John Breaux of Louisiana pleaded with him to compromise not only with Republicans but with those in his own party resisting new taxes and new spending.

But Clintonites were on a roll. This was their moment to confirm the new president's power and authority by getting every dollar in his much-touted package to pump-prime the economy. And so Mr. Clinton linked up not with Mr. Boren or Mr. Breaux but with Sen. Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia, the self-proclaimed keeper of the Senate rule book.

When Mr. Byrd, with the president's consent, trotted out an arcane rule that effectively barred any Republican amendments, the battle was on. War was declared. Provoked into unity, Republicans turned the rule book against Mr. Byrd. They successfully invoked the filibuster to demonstrate the administration would have to listen to them.

With unintentional irony, the president is now complaining about a GOP "power play" even though he started this nasty game. Until Congress comes back from its Spring recess on April 19, Republicans will be throwing the "tax-and-spend" charge at their tormentors and Democrats will be accusing their opponents of undercutting the recovery and taking away jobs. But this is a debate that can be profitably ignored. Even if the administration got the whole cake rather than the half-a-cake it is going to get, not enough money is involved to alter the economic outlook materially.

What is far more important is what kind of a president Mr. Clinton is going to be. If he is to be captured by the causists on the left side of his party, he will never be able to exercise the national leadership that is the path to greatness. Without giving up his determination for change, Mr. Clinton should establish links to the Republicans and to those conservative Democrats, like Senator Breaux, with whom he was once identified. If he fails to do this, much more than his stimulus bill is in danger. He will need more than liberal or party-line support to transform the health care system, win passage of the Mexican trade pact, amass funds to aid Russia and all the other high-priority items that comprise the Clinton program.

Once again, as was the case in Hillary Clinton's secrecy on health care deliberations, our advice to this administration is to go easy on the arrogance.

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