100 Days: Time for a Course Correction

BEN WATTENBERG

April 28, 1993|By BEN WATTENBERG

Washington. -- Here is a charitable view of the first 100 days of the Clinton administration, its prospects for the remaining 1,361 days, and a way to save it.

President Clinton wants to do a great deal. That's good, not bad. It is silly to say he is ''trying to do too much.'' He can't just stick to ''the economy'' when America has major crime, education, health and welfare problems, let alone NAFTA, GATT, Bosnia, China and Russia.

His foreign-policy moves, so far, have been mostly good. His reaction to the events in Russia has been bold. Boris Yeltsin's victory shows that a ''democracy first'' foreign policy has promise.

Mr. Clinton's problems are on the home front. His budget plan is in trouble. It should be. It is misguided. Its folly stems from several causes, some of which may still be fixed.

It raises both taxes and spending. There may be some valid reasons for such a course. If the taxes were used for deficit reduction, it would make sense. But the Clinton proposal leaves us with a $200 billion deficit after four years -- too high, because while raising taxes he also increases domestic spending.

There is even a case that might be made for more domestic spending, but the Clinton budget doesn't make it. Mr. Clinton promised to address the ''social deficit'' by changing the nature of government. He was going to ''re-invent'' government, making it lean and mean, more responsive, keyed to personal responsibility standards. He said ''no more something for nothing.'' That's what made him a ''New Democrat.''

But where's the beef? His budget calls for $8 billion more for food stamps. Will that money be used for a transition program that would ''end welfare as we know it''? Will a new welfare plan really have a ''two years and out'' rule for recipients? Or will it be watered-down mush, as some administration statements seem to indicate? No one knows. For the moment, the money just goes for more food stamps, adding to America's dependency addiction.

He wants $9 billion more for Head Start, but in a recent speech he acknowledged that the program Clinton's big mistake has been to let his budget train race way ahead of his policy train.

doesn't work well. Will the money go for a changed policy? No one knows.

Monumental policy fights within his administration, and with the Congress, on these issues and many others are still to be waged.

Mr. Clinton's big mistake has been to let his budget train race way ahead of his policy train. He is asking the Congress to vote new, fresh money for old, failed policies, or for a blank check.

All the Republicans, in public, are saying no. And many moderate Democrats, in private, say the same thing. Together they have enough votes to stymie Clintonomics, without a filibuster. That would be in tune with a majority of Americans, who say they want less spending and less government. And in tune with a re-activated Ross Perot.

Do not doubt that if Mr. Clinton doesn't change his plan, moderate Democrats will jump ship. The only Senate Democrat soon to face the voters, Bob Kreuger of Texas, has already done so (for the special election in May to fill Lloyd Bentsen's seat). Other Democrats will Kreugerize as the 1994 elections approach.

What can the president do? Politicians re-invent themselves, or try to, all the time. He wasn't called Slick Willie because he doesn't know the game.

He will have to roll back a good portion of his tax-and-spend plans. Any additional taxes and spending should be earmarked for either deficit reduction or for new programs in the ''New Democrat'' mode, thus linking a new budget to new policy.

This would be easier for Mr. Clinton if he had not, in his early staff appointments, short-changed the very New Democrats that made him a contender. Still, 100 days is only 6 percent of a term. There is time to hire, and to fire.

If President Clinton changes, he might well convince Americans that it's what he intended to do from the beginning. After all, that's how he ran. It could still be called the Clinton Plan.

That's the charitable view. The uncharitable view is that he tricked America to get elected.

Ben Wattenberg is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

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