Victory for President Clinton's economic package in Congress neither assures him long-run success nor ends the battle against huge deficits that endanger the country's well-being. To gain his narrow wins in the House and Senate, the president had to accede to demands from conservative Democrats for added cuts in federal spending to offset what they believe is an overemphasis on taxes in the administration bill.
Under agreements feverishly worked out with wavering members of his own party, Mr. Clinton committed himself to a talk fest on spending reductions next month in suburban Philadelphia and an added $10 billion in cuts through the regular appropriations process. There also will be moves to toughen controls on the growth of entitlement programs, especially Medicare. The president's dilemma is that these moves will only add to the frustration of Democratic liberals who will fight such conservative policy trends.
An even greater danger for Mr. Clinton is the state of the economy.
While passage of his $500 billion deficit reduction measure was a political triumph he just had to have, it is bound to dampen the economy. Small business, long the chief creator of new jobs, could be especially hard hit by upper-bracket tax hikes. While final action on Capitol Hill does remove some uncertainty from the economic outlook, the need for added revenue to finance health care reforms creates a big question-mark for next year.
The cliff-hanger votes in the Senate and House sparked exaggerated chatter suggesting that the fate of the republic was at stake. It wasn't. Some political careers were put at risk, but even if the Clinton plan had failed Congress would have had to get to work right away on an alternative that might not have looked all that different.
It has already been remarked how similar is the Clinton plan to the bipartisan Bush-era agreement in 1990. Both raise taxes on the affluent and restrain federal spending in the name of deficit reduction. But the Bush plan failed for two reasons: because it had no handle on runaway entitlements and because revenues fell short of projections due to a lagging economy. There is a real danger the Clinton plan might go down that same road.
Actually, the conservative Democrats who gave the president fits may turn out to be his saviors. If they can fashion a follow-on package that places more emphasis on spending cuts than on taxes, the private sector might get a lift. Republicans could hardly spurn a course so close to what they have long proposed. This would also help the president lure the GOP votes he assuredly needs to gain approval of a North American Free Trade Agreement and his other key objectives -- health care and welfare reform.
One budget victory does not a presidency make, but it is far better to win it than to lose it.