Biting the Budget Bullet

PRESIDENT Clinton and New Jersey Gov. James Florio share more than Democratic Party affiliation: Both have been trying to convince their constituents to face up to the economic realities of these times, but not knuckle under.

Governor Florio, who, after taking office in 1990, disavowed a campaign promise not to raise taxes and pushed through a $2.8 billion tax increase with the help of Republicans in the legislature.

The strategy was to put the state's fiscal house in order. As yet, the move has produced only a formidable challenger for the governor in next fall's election: Christine Todd Whitman, who almost unseated US Sen. Bill Bradley (D) in 1990. But give Florio credit for sticking his neck out; leadership doesn't always have immediate rewards.

Mr. Clinton's strategy is similar, but on a vaster scale: reducing the federal deficit's drag on the economy by shifting tax burdens, adjusting benefits, and cutting spending. Through his $500 billion deficit-reduction package, he hopes to set the stage for long-term job and revenue growth. So far, he has been frustrated by lukewarm acquiescence in the US House of Representatives, the presence of a cadre of tough Senate Republicans led by Bob Dole of Kansas, a few maverick Democratic senators, and public

doubt.

Clinton is asking Americans to do what they did to build the nation: refuse to accept failure. Governors and legislators of most states are watching with interest how voters respond to candor rather than sugar-coating by federal, state, and local leaders.

Two key superstates, California and New York, also face serious budget troubles. How they deal with their fiscal woes could influence the approaches of another echelon of states - Texas, Pennsylvania, and Illinois, for example. If successful, their efforts could add to the momentum of hope. Clinton's perambulations outside of Washington are part of that, but his actions need to be more skillfully staged. A job for David Gergen?

Recovery can't be produced with bells and whistles, but people's belief in its possibility can be strenghtened.

Ross Perot's "just do it" may sound like cheerleading, especially without specifics, but the basic idea has merit.

Congress has to replace shortsightedness with long-range vision, give the president a break, and accept its part in the restoration of national confidence. Isn't that one of the things they were sent to Washington for?

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