The Politics of Pain

August 05, 1993

One fact above all hangs like a guillotine over Democratic legislators as they brace for showdown votes on President Clinton's deficit reduction plan. Like any other measure that raises taxes or cuts government spending, it would be a drag on the economy -- at least for the short run. And the short run, on Capitol Hill, means next year's congressional elections.

Although administration officials take some comfort in a long-term bounce-back they anticipate before the 1996 presidential elections, that hardly offering much comfort to many fellow Democrats. As a result, Mr. Clinton has been handing out concessions to wavering backbenchers in a hunt for squeak-through majorities in both chambers.

It is not an edifying spectacle to a public that continues to give negative ratings to the president and even lower marks to the Congress. But the Washington political fraternity knows that the stakes are high: Mr. Clinton's reputation as a president who can get things done hangs in the balance. Having described his initiative as "historic," he risks a defeat of similar proportions.

Actually, there is a lot of hyperbole on both sides. A five-year slowdown of $496 billion in the accumulation of a national debt that still will rise by $1 trillion is roughly comparable to the aims of the 1990 budget bill. Higher taxes, curbs on spending and deficit reduction are hallmarks of the two measures. If the Clinton proposal breaks new ground, it is in chopping away at the growth in Medicare and Medicaid costs, two runaway entitlement programs that are breaking the budget.

All this adds up to the politics of pain. It clobbered George Bush, whose retreat from his "no new taxes" pledge cost him a second term. And it could undercut Mr. Clinton even if he prevails this time. Most of the "investments" (i.e. government spending programs) he trumpeted to "grow" the economy have been excised or watered down. Most of the tax incentives he proposed to jump-start a lagging recovery have suffered a similar fate. It is not a happy picture for Democratic incumbents.

Republican legislators know this well, which is why in their heart of hearts they must hope Mr. Clinton will prevail without the help of a single GOP vote. True, this would lift the president's drooping prestige. But the economy then would be strictly a Democratic economy. If things go badly, as many Republicans anticipate, they can dump the blame on their rivals. The alternative for GOP legislators would be a Clinton defeat followed by a bipartisan patch-up they could scarcely evade.

As difficult as matters are for President Clinton, he deserves credit for trying to make the country face up to the deficit problems created in the go-go Eighties. His prescriptions might not be exactly right and his fudging on the need for middle-class taxes might be exactly wrong, but even the politics of pain has to be the politics of the possible. He is doing his job, taking stands, insisting on action. Win or lose, that is being presidential.

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