IF only the public understood President Clinton's deficit-reduction program....
It is a common refrain from Democratic leaders, who open the Summer Olympics of political sport next week: a House-Senate negotiation to find the right tax hikes and spending cuts to win a majority in both houses.
Mr. Clinton's plan has such a negative aura that voting in favor of it is flirting with political suicide. The White House acknowledged the political risk by vowing forgiveness to certain vulnerable Democratic senators who opposed it in the Senate's June 25 50-to-49 vote.
Public opposition to the economic proposals has doubled since February, according to a Washington Post poll. Democrats say it's because they failed to sell the program. Republicans say Democrats failed with the plan, then the selling job.
"Americans are willing to sacrifice for a good cause," says Neil Newhouse, a Republican pollster. "But more spending cuts and more visible cuts in what is perceived as waste would have resonated better with people."
The latest rhetorical fight has been dubbed "the battle of the pie charts." Republicans argue that Clinton's plan entails more than twice as much in tax hikes ($258 billion over five years) as spending cuts ($122 billion). Democrats say the numbers are $243 billion and $256 billion.
Democrats stress the plan's "fairness." More than three-quarters of the money raised by tax hikes will come from the rich, party leaders assert, stressing that at least they are trying to do something about the deficit.
Republicans didn't introduce their plan until the day of the Senate vote, says Kiki Moore, communications director for the Democratic National Committee. Die cast in Congress
White House communications officials say more time is needed to sell Clinton's plan - and that once the case has been made, his polling numbers will rise. But the die has largely been cast in Congress. No Republicans are expected to vote for the compromise legislation that comes out of the House-Senate conference. And few Democrats who voted against the legislation the first time around are expected to endorse the compromise.
At stake are the 1994 elections, when Republicans hope to tar Democratic incumbents with the "tax and spend" brush - and pick up House seats or even take control of the Senate.
Perhaps most striking about the rhetorical battle over deficit reduction is how far Clinton has fallen. It seems almost ancient history that on Feb. 18, the day after his vaunted State of the Union message, 84 percent of the public agreed that "the sacrifices Clinton is asking people to make are necessary," according to a Washington Post poll.
So what happened? Several things: Distractions, like the botched Lani Guinier Justice Department nomination and the clumsy firing of the White House's travel staff, kept Clinton off balance and "off message."
The White House also dropped the ball by failing to settle on how to characterize the plan, said a source familiar with the White House communications process. Officials debated whether to sell the plan as promoting economic growth or reducing the deficit. "But the debate became paralytic, and the sale wasn't made," the source says.
Administration officials also apparently did not foresee the rhetorical fire they were playing with on the tax issue. In his Feb. 17 speech, Clinton said new taxes were coming, but artfully called them "contributions."
"With that speech, most people heard: `I've got a plan to make the economy move again,' and that quickly became a debate on which taxes to raise," the source says. The administration sent up trial balloons on taxes it was considering. To the public, it felt like "let's tax this, let's tax that," he says.
What has happened since Feb. 17, rhetorically, is a shift from campaign-speak to the speech of governance. Clinton's State of the Union message, made less than a month after he took office, was perhaps his last campaign speech, an effort to rally the troops for the tough job ahead.
"Getting down to realism, pretty words don't matter as much," says Patrick Anderson, a campaign speechwriter for Jimmy Carter. Fighting one-liners
Clinton also faces the challenge of fighting back against one-liners from the likes of Senate GOP leader Robert Dole, Mr. Anderson says. "It's easier to come up with a phrase to knock something down than to present a complex argument to explain something that might persuade people otherwise."
The GOP "wrapped `tax and spend' around Clinton's neck, so it's a tougher sell," says Democratic consultant Robert Beckel. "But it's doable by saying: `What's the alternative? Having a plan is better than having no plan.' "
Now that the economic plan is in the House-Senate conference, the public battle is over, and "neither side won," Mr. Beckel says. "Clinton started ahead and the Republicans neutralized him."