PRESIDENT Clinton continues to press his advantage after a historic speech last week to raise taxes, cut spending, and reduce the deficit. The president's town meetings in Michigan and Ohio and the media masterstroke of holding a televised children's forum at the White House may cause critics to say Mr. Clinton is doing too much campaigning and not enough governing.
But a larger strategy may belie this critique: Clinton is taking a comprehensive and serious plan to an electorate that voted for change and is raising its expectations. In this sense, Clinton is not going out on a political limb by himself. He is setting Congress up to make the kind of hard choices it has avoided making during 12 years of divided government. If after a year nothing has changed in Washington - if the deficit climbs, if taxes are raised but few cuts in the budget are made - it will be Dem ocratic leaders in Congress more than Clinton who will be blamed by voters. Clinton has changed the entire terms of the "blame game" between Republicans and Democrats.
The logic is stunningly simple: A young, dynamic president comes to Washington and forthrightly puts out a bold plan that lets no one off the hook - no pork unsliced, no special interests unchecked. He pushes the plan tirelessly; even gets voters to say they will accept taxes if it will help the country in the long run! But if Congress finally can't end gridlock, Clinton's attempt to cut the mounting deficit and spur private economic growth will fail.
Should this occur, it will be Democrats like George Mitchell, Tom Foley, Robert Byrd, Richard Gephardt, and Sam Nunn that will seem responsible. After an election year where Clinton shared a chunk of votes with independent Ross Perot, that terrible angel of deficit reduction, it is not clear the American voter is ready to accept lame Democratic excuses.
And what of Congress? Now that the applause from 70 ovations during Clinton's speech has faded, Democrats are waking to realize what this means: Be careful what you ask for because you might get it. Democrats asked for a leader, and they got one. Now what will they do? The White House and Capitol Hill must work together. Reported dissent by Southern Democrats arguing that the president must be more specific over the promised deficit cuts is actually a good sign.
The stakes in Clinton's presidency are higher than they seem. What is being tested is government's ability to respond and to be accountable. Whether Clinton's path, or another path jointly worked out, change is needed. The outcome of doing nothing will be further voter disillusionment - something this democracy can't take much more of.