Clinton Breaks a Taboo

June 19, 1995|By GARRY WILLS

CHICAGO — Chicago. -- The president has offended some in his own party with his plan for attacking the deficit. When he discusses Medicare cuts, he blunts the attacks Democrats have been mounting on the cold-heartedness of Republican spending proposals.

For a president to offend his own camp is not necessarily a bad thing. It is often the only way to move out beyond narrow positions. Nixon offended hard-core followers when he opened diplomatic relations with China, but that laid the basis for all his later claims to diplomatic skills and statesmanship.

The trick, of course, is to regain the support of one's own after disappointing them with specific moves. President Clinton has such a record of tacking and shifting that he risks permanently estranging people who cannot predict where he will be tomorrow. There is little he can do about that now, except stick with this proposal at least.

Others criticize Mr. Clinton not because he offered his own plan but because his own plan is inadequate. The Republican cuts, though done in the wrong place, are at least on a scale with the problem. President Clinton, proposing less than half of the Republicans' limits on Medicare, is nibbling at a problem they have manfully bitten into.

But this charge misses the real import of the president's plan. By moving against mainstream entitlements, however tentatively, he has broken the taboo that kept them sacrosanct. Now that both parties have faced this issue, there is some hope that it can be dealt with more honestly. Other sacred things are usefully endangered -- things such as full Social Security to the affluent.

The president's move is an opening gambit, not a final plan, but it brings him back into the game. Democrats in Congress can act like back-bench critics of whatever the Republicans propose. But a president must enforce laws the Congress produces or have a convincing rationale for vetoing them. To veto as a merely negative act would undermine the very impression of leadership a veto should emphasize.

The Republicans understand this better than their outnumbered congressional foes. They are welcoming the idea of Mr. Clinton's budget, while arguing with its details, lest they be branded as the naysayers who want drastic cuts or none. It is an interesting war of nerves, and its real benefit may be produced almost accidentally or as a side effect. But we should welcome that benefit, that breaking of a taboo, no matter how it was produced.

Garry Wills is a syndicated columnist.

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