WASHINGTON — THE proud Democratic Party of New Deal days, a coalition of blacks, labor, liberals, and Southern whites, may finally be fading into history.
As President Clinton tries to recapture the centrist "New Democrat" image he campaigned on in 1992, he is drifting farther and farther away from the congressional wing of his party and much of its traditional base. The result could be the decisive transformation of a party that has now struggled with an identity crisis for decades.
That could well be good politics. The center is where the majority of voters are supposed to be, after all. Many analysts might argue that the change could be good policy, too. A Democratic president and a GOP Congress both trying to balance the budget might result in unprecedented deficit reduction.
Still, Mr. Clinton's movement toward the right dismays more than a few old-line party members.
Years ago, Republicans used to be politicians who stood for the social progress that Democrats favored, only carried out more slowly and more cheaply. Now Democrats are fast becoming a party in favor of GOP fiscal goals - only carried out more slowly and with more attention to social concerns.
"Once Democrats identify shrinking government in and of itself as a good thing, and deficit reduction as a priority, they've capitulated intellectually and politically," says Lawrence Mishel, Economic Policy Institute director, a liberal who himself does not believe in such government cuts.
Back in 1992, Clinton in fact was not the candidate for the Democratic nomination who was pushing deficit reduction, Mr. Mishel points out. That was former Sen. Paul Tsongas (D) of Massachusetts, who made balancing the budget the center of his campaign.
Clinton talked about both fiscal responsibility and fiscal stimulus through government spending - a traditional Democratic goal. His initial fiscal stimulus package was picked apart in Congress, however, and since then the White House macroeconomic policy has become more identified with deficit reduction.
To see how far away from the left the Democratic Party's titular leader has moved, look at his agenda. There's the balanced-budget plan he produced last week, to compete with similar GOP proposals. There's welfare reform. There's "reinventing government," which is another name for cutting bureaucracy and red tape.
Noble goals all. But the very radicalism of the Republican agenda in the House is forcing Clinton to ratchet up his efforts in this area, analysts point out.
Clinton's goal used to be simply deficit reduction, after all - something that he had accomplished to a greater extent than his GOP predecessors. Now it's a balanced budget in 10 years.
'Vindicated GOP goals'
Clinton's new, more hawkish deficit stance has "vindicated" GOP efforts, crowed Sen. Spencer Abraham (R) of Michigan on Saturday.
Congressional Democrats ought to fold their opposition to the GOP in light of their own president's efforts, said Senator Abraham in a reply to Clinton's weekly radio address. "I also hope that the president will now support other Republican efforts," Abraham said, including elimination of entire federal agencies and an overhaul of the tax system as a whole.
Reinvention of the Democratic Party may well have been inevitable. The concerns that melded the New Deal coalition, including rampant poverty among the elderly, legal segregation, and widespread lack of electricity and housing, have to a large extent been alleviated. New problems now face the country.
The pillars of federal government activity used to be defense against communism and provision for old age, through Social Security. That's changing into a more complicated agenda, notes Sam Popkin, a Democratic pollster who worked for the Clinton campaign in '92. Longer-term concerns, such as competition in the international marketplace, and scientific and medical advances, are becoming more important.
"Things are all under shift," says Mr. Popkin, adding that neither he nor anyone else has an idea where it will all end up.
"Republicans are going to have to change what they stand for, too," says Popkin. "They stand for a different kind of pork barrel, such as tax breaks for business."
Not all Democrats think that Clinton's born-again budget-hawk status means that Republicanism has intellectually triumphed.
The real question, notes political science Prof. James Pfiffner of George Mason University, is what's the definition of a liberal.
What is this thing called 'liberal?'
You can be in favor of large budget cuts and, at the same time, be in favor of support for the disadvantaged, says Mr. Pfiffner, who calls himself a "bleeding-heart liberal deficit hawk." You just have to be careful where you make your reductions.
"For instance, you can be against farm price supports and still be a liberal," he says.
Pfiffner says he would like to see where unspecified savings in Medicare and Medicaid would come from, under Clinton's new budget proposals. But political labels aside, "it's good for the country, regardless of tactics" that a president and Congress both say they're committed to budget balancing.