The Vital Center

It's all too easy to dismiss the bipartisan noises issuing from Washington as so much political Muzak. Politicians admonished by the voters' clear preference for moderation and cooperation have to at least go through the motions, right?

But we hope there's something more than well-staged posturing to gestures like President Clinton's recent pledge to govern from "the vital American center."

Addressing the group that helped launch his journey to the presidency, the resolutely centrist Democratic Leadership Council, Mr. Clinton promised that the big accomplishments of his next four years - a finished balanced-budget plan, stronger public-education reform, expanded job opportunities for former welfare recipients - would be ushered in by hands joined across the aisle.

Recalling Washington's recent history, such proclamations of goodwill could seem a bit roseate. But the election altered Washington's political coloring at least temporarily, reestablishing the public yearning for a government of moderate accomplishment - neither gung-ho for big social programs nor striving to deregulate and devolve itself out of existence.

Come 1997, there should indeed be less ideology and more ideas for making government's new, leaner program work. Some interesting unknowns lurk ahead. Will adjustments in the Consumer Price Index play a role in budget balancing? Will Clinton and Congress find the courage to forge a bipartisan plan on Medicare reform? How and when will the president use the line-item veto the last Congress, in its antispending zeal, placed in his hands?

Hanging over all are politically sizzling ethics probes - of Clinton, Democratic fund-raising, and of Speaker Gingrich's use of money for political organizing purposes.

It will take exceptional commitment to keep bipartisanship and cooperation in sight. But this is the time of year when we all turn our thoughts toward untapped possibilities for good - possibilities that, even in Washington, aren't limited to one season.

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