Clinton Strikes Back

PRESIDENT Clinton is on the offensive again, putting down some markers, posting his short list of priorities: tax cuts that include the education benefits he proposed in December, a welfare overhaul that rewards work, and a crime bill that preserves the ban on assault weapons.

This message, in Saturday's regular radio address, followed another speech before the American Society of Newspaper Editors in Dallas April 7. Clinton took that occasion to warn that while he does not want ''a pile of vetoes,'' neither will he accept some of the legislation likely to come his way, including the Republican tax cuts, which he derided as ''fantasy.''

His timing makes sense. It was tactically smart, as well as statesmanlike, for Mr. Clinton to give Newt Gingrich center stage during his first 100 days as House Speaker, and to let the people get to know him and decide whether they like him. The two have a lot more in common than some partisans on either side may realize: not least, volubility.

The Speaker has had an ambitious agenda -- a number of proposals that needed to be considered on their merits and voted on. Had the president been in there daily, sparring with Mr. Gingrich, it would have diverted attention from the issues.

Of course the next phase of the political process is not a White House phase. The bills passed by the House will go to the Senate, where deliberation is considered a virtue and where several incumbents are running for the presidency.

Clinton's is arguably a consensus short list. And a Clinton-Dole matchup would be a race between two kinds of compromisers: one who engages with ideas but has a hard time communicating a core set of unshakable, uncompromisable values, and the other a master tactician whose moral center is less subject to question but who seems to lose track of his own position in the dealmaking.

Don't count Clinton out yet. After the 100 days he is stronger than before. We are reminded of Muhammad Ali's ''rope a dope'' strategy in his fight with George Foreman years ago: Ali was literally on the ropes, taking blow after blow from Foreman. But when Foreman had nearly exhausted himself, Ali, who had just been faking it and deflecting his opponent's blows, charged back and knocked him down.

The ''comeback kid'' in the White House may yet have another rally left.

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