Who Stole What Ideas?

Much has been written about how Bill Clinton has presided over - and taken credit for - three big Republican ideas:

*Balancing the budget.

*A capital gains tax cut.

*A family-targeted child tax credit.

Such copyright infringement, a major feature of this week's bipartisan budget agreement, is really a continuation of the 1996 Clinton election strategy. Then, remember, he was saluted for (or accused of) stealing a batch of GOP platform planks. (With Dick Morris as his poll-vaulting Merlin.)

This conventional wisdom about clever political larceny is catchy. But is it accurate?

Not entirely. The Bill Clinton of budget balancing instinct coupled to social concerns wrote on the Opinion page of this newspaper in August 1980 about how "large government deficits," high inflation, and loss of competitive edge were changing his attitude that the New Deal had fixed America forever. "We were brought up to believe, uncritically," he wrote, "that our system broke down in the Great Depression, was reconstructed by Franklin Roosevelt and would never break again. All we had to do was to reach out and extend the benefits of America to those who had been dispossessed: minorities and women, the elderly, the handicapped, and children in need. But the hard truth is this economic system has been breaking down."

Then-governor Clinton went on to prescribe general remedies: " a big tax cut for big business. a redefinition of the relationship between the federal government and big business and labor. [measures to] increase risk taking and job creation in small and new and growing businesses. [an appeal] to the millions and millions of middle-class and upper-middle-class people who are so alienated from this process ..."

In 1993, that 1980 outlook clearly led to the new president's focus on budget balancing, job creation, and competitiveness. Just as clearly, the Republicans saved him from two missteps. One was his attempt to create jobs through a federal program; the second, his aborted plan for a labyrinthine national health system. In this week's budget deal, he returned the favor by offering GOP leaders the cover of some humane revising of welfare reform's rough edges and a bow in the direction of educational opportunity.

But bipartisan credit for budget balancing doesn't exonerate either party on failure to deal with entitlement costs, such as Medicare's, that threaten really serious unbalancing of the budget soon after deficits reach zero for the first time in three decades.

True, the US economy is in much better shape than that of any other major "rich" nation. Deficits, at 1.5 percent of national production, are half what Europe's main economies are struggling to achieve. But to preserve that US edge, this week's partners in the budget marriage of convenience should take a new marital vow: Start planning to tackle the entitlement budget threat.

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