Clinton Leaves Field To the Republicans

REMEMBER how the president told us a few months back that he now was engaged in a Great Debate with the Republicans? Maybe it's time to evaluate that debate. As of now I would say that the Republicans keep scoring points simply because the issue -- how best to run the government -- is one they continue to address effectively while Mr. Clinton and the Democrats haven't been at all persuasive.

The reason? Well, it is clear that the federal budget proposal -- how money should be spent and what programs to keep -- is central to this whole debate. But while both the House and Senate Republicans have come up with plans to put our financial house in order, the president provides little except criticism -- and a veto threat. He tells the Democratic leaders in Congress that ''this is not the season'' for him to come up with an alternative proposal -- that it will have to come later after the Republicans work out their differences and embrace a single plan.

In the meantime, while indicating he is working on a plan and that he thinks balancing the budget within 10 years will be a part of his proposal, the president's strategy seems to be ''Let the Republicans stew in their own juices.'' Up to now that approach has not been enough to win the Great Debate.

True, the Republicans in their adventures in budgetry aren't wallowing in success. By getting out in front they have also got out in the open. The president and the Democrats charge that the GOP plans are ''cruel'' in their cuts of social programs. And a public that had apparently sent a ''less federal government'' message to Washington in last November's elections now seems to have had some second thoughts. A new poll shows that some 55 percent of Americans have become unhappy with the Republicans' budget plans.

It's an old story. The same people who vote to cut spending take a contra view when they find that spending reductions are going to mean less money or benefits for themselves. A good example: those people who first hailed the idea of reducing Pentagon spending by shutting down military bases. They then became upset when the military base nearby their community was chosen to be wiped out by government decree.

But several leading papers and magazines usually accounted to be liberal now are giving the Republicans credit for being ''responsible'' on the budget. They do, indeed, find the planning flawed: Cuts in Medicare and welfare are too deep; the block-grant-to-the-states proposal is wrong-headed. But they do concede that Gingrich, Dole, and company are doing the right thing in trying to move forward with a plan to balance the budget.

When will the president feel it is the ''right season'' to push forward with an alternative budgetary plan? We would guess that he will paw the ground for some time before that happens -- if it ever does. For now, at least, he seems more comfortable in trying to reshape the GOP initiatives. He seeks to make his mark on that legislation by opposing the tax cuts which the Republicans say are for the middle-income groups and which Clinton and the Democrats say are for the wealthy. And he apparently seeks to hold together as much as he can the social programs put in place by Franklin D. Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson.

All this has left a president who isn't doing too well in the Great Debate. Yet as I write this I see Clinton's popularity rating, which not too long ago was down to about 43 percent, has risen to the upper 50s. Maybe politically the president is making the right moves. The trip to Russia seems to have helped his ratings -- as did the way he responded to the Oklahoma City bombing. Maybe his flailing away at the Republicans for ''lack of compassion'' in their budget is paying off in public approval, and maybe actually winning the ''Great Debate'' isn't all that important to Clinton as he gets ready for the 1996 hustings.

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