Exaggerations aside, it's crunch time for Clinton ON POLITICS



WASHINGTON -- As President Clinton faces a critical vote in Congress this week on the controversial deficit-reduction package, it's being said that failure to win will break his presidency. Such statements about a single vote usually can be chalked up to hyperbole, but this one could come close to the mark, for several reasons.

First, the president has invested so much time and political capital on deficit reduction as the cornerstone of his efforts to bolster the economy -- and start to undo the fiscal pollution of the 12 Reagan-Bush years of borrow-and-spend -- that losing the vote would be a devastating rejection.

It can be argued, and indeed it is being argued by some, that the Clinton package has already been so riddled by compromise to garner the votes needed for passage as to bear little resemblance to what the president proposed back in February. Republicans, who are marching in lockstep behind their congressional leaders in opposition, insist that even if passed, the legislation will not offer true deficit reduction.

It is also argued that failure to hit the magic figure of $500 billion over five years sought by Clinton will discredit the whole effort. That may be the view of the numbers crunchers on the House Ways and Means and the Senate Finance committees and in the think tanks. But the average voter is not likely to see much difference in $500 billion or a slightly lower figure of $490-plus billion that is now being kicked around.

In any event, what is important for the president now is not so much the numbers and the fine print, but the public perception that he has not been denied victory by members of his own party. With the 44 Republicans in the Senate standing fast against him, Clinton can afford to lose only six of the 56 Democratic senators, and one of them who reluctantly stayed with him on the last deficit-reduction vote, David Boren of Oklahoma, said on television Sunday that he would vote against the package hammered out in a House-Senate conference.

Clinton's argument that congressional gridlock is at fault won't have much resonance if seven Democrats go off the reservation and join hands with the Republicans when their president needs their support so desperately. If his very considerable personal lobbying of his fellow Democrats doesn't pay off, his image as a leader whose troops feel they can desert him with impunity will further implant itself in Congress, and in the public mind.

The very process of wheeling and dealing to patch together a majority in the two houses, even if the actual negotiating is going on among House and Senate conferees, risks the president being perceived as vulnerable, as legislators with this or that favorite program or provision playing hardball to get concessions. While compromise is in the nature of the process when different versions of any bill passed by the House and Senate have to be reconciled in conference, a president who appears to be wielding more carrot than stick is not going to convey much sense of being truly in command.

The most successful presidents manage, with varying degrees of finesse or sheer assertiveness, to instill either respect or fear in the members of Congress called on to vote on their agendas. In the last 40 years, Republicans Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon (in his first term) and Ronald Reagan and Democrat Lyndon Johnson all exhibited this ability.

There was never any talk of a failed presidency in the first years of their occupancy of the Oval Office, let alone the first six months.

If Clinton manages to squeeze through on the approaching deficit-reduction vote, his spin doctors like David Gergen can be expected to declare the feat to be a victory of monumental proportions.

But the manner of achieving it, and the continued sense of independence if not defiance toward him among many congressional Democrats, will make that victory more a matter of dodging a bullet.

What passage of the deficit reduction package will do will be to clear the decks for the other key legislative initiative that will give Clinton a greater opportunity to prove his leadership skills -- the crafting of a national health insurance program of sweeping impact on the lives of everyday Americans.

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