THE president obviously has captured and is holding on to what has come to be known in press and political circles as "The Big Mo." The momentum the president is enjoying shows that the people clearly are behind him, and that he just as clearly hears their message. "You've got to do something," he told some congressmen who were raising questions about his economic package. That's it. The people said it in their votes for Ross Perot and Bill Clinton. They're insisting that the gridlock must be ended. They
want something done.
This public support for President Clinton and for what he is trying to do is reflected in the polls. But what impresses me most is what Republicans and one-time backers of George Bush are saying: "Let's give Clinton a chance to see what he can do."
One of these, a long-time friend of mine from Macon, Ga., surprised me with his vehemence on the subject "The temper of the people as I see and feel it, not only here but all through the South," he writes, "is that Congress better get it done now - and stop looking for reasons to block this president, or there is going to be trouble."
At a recent Monitor breakfast, the president's Office of Management and Budget director, Leon Panetta, spoke confidently of quick congressional action on Clinton's economic package. He foresees job-creating stimulus legislation being enacted by Easter. And he thinks the rest of the president's plan - taxes and what are being called "investments" - will be in place by mid-summer.
Mr. Panetta concedes that the administration is riding a wave of high public approval. But he points out that, "The Big Mo could evaporate quickly," and adds, "Remember what happened to Bush." He is well aware that Clinton must push this package through Congress before a substantial portion of the public might have second thoughts about the sacrifices, through new and increased taxes, they are being asked to make.
The taxes the president is imposing and appears to have in mind for the future are not exactly the kind of levies that Democratic liberals are supposed to like. This energy tax looks regressive to me, no matter how it is written to make it less disproportionately burdensome on the poor. Some kind of a sales tax is likely to be used to pay for the terribly expensive health-care program that appears imminent. That's another regressive tax. Can't you hear the protest from the Democrats if a Republican presi dent would move in that direction?
In the 1950s, most states were either running out of money or did not have sufficient funds for programs governors wanted. A state sales tax seemed an obvious solution. But when Republican governors proposed this tax, the Democrats would often block it. "He's trying to hurt the poor," they would cry. But when a newly elected Democratic governor, pleading that he had no other place to turn, proposed a sales tax, it passed. I guess the Democrats rationalized that a Democratic governor would be more compass ionate in applying such a tax.
What draws a lot of support for Clinton's plan from Republicans and conservatives generally is the president's inclusion of what might well have been their own proposals. They like his willingness to ease up on the capital-gains tax and to provide funds for small businesses. Most of all, they applaud his effort to cut spending and reduce the deficit. They see Clinton, at least for now, as a "new" kind of Democrat, one who looks a lot like one of them.
In the tug and pull that now will take place in Congress, a compromise will emerge. That's when the public will be able to determine whether it feels that Clinton truly has delivered. Has the sacrifice of taxes been passed around fairly? Have spending cuts been sufficient? Is Clinton a "new," moderate Democrat or a closet liberal?
By late summer, the voters will have a pretty clear idea of where Clinton is going. Right now he appears to be doing two things at once: putting the federal government's economic house in order and, at the same time, providing funds for programs he feels the public sorely needs.
Will those Republicans who now give Clinton his chance to make good stay with him when the final, congressional-shaped program comes to light and then is signed into legislation?