Politics Minus Deficits

President Clinton's staccato announcements of policy initiatives this week herald a changed political landscape. The federal budget deficit no longer looms over Washington, depressing both spending and tax-cutting impulses.

That should not mean, however, that fiscal responsibility is also poised to flee the landscape. While Democrats, led by the president, are talking programs, and Republicans are talking tax cuts, neither side wants to be blamed for prematurely pushing aside deficit concerns. Rather, both should keep those concerns in view, restraining themselves and each other.

So as Mr. Clinton test markets such proposals as Medicare for the "near-elderly" and $21 billion in new federal subsidies for child care, he has to specify how they'll be paid for. The means of payment are tentative - program savings for Medicare, and revenue from the pending tobacco industry settlement for child care. But new spending or taxes remain beyond the pale.

The same attention to gaining and extending a balanced budget should guide Republicans seeking tax cuts. It was tax increases under both Bush and Clinton that, teamed with revenues from a booming economy, shrank the deficit to its current wafer-thin size - as little as $5 billion in a budget of $1.7 trillion. That achievement should not be jeopardized by cutting too soon or too deeply.

House Speaker Newt Gingrich himself, calling for cuts, put the emphasis on "small." And he correctly observed that forecast budget surpluses could profitably be applied to cutting the national debt, thus decreasing the country's debt-service load and freeing resources for future priorities.

Top among those is bulwarking the massive entitlements - Social Security and Medicare - that face demographic pressures early next century. This task will demand more of the bipartisanship that saw the passage of a balanced budget agreement last year and welfare reform a year earlier.

Instincts in Washington may work against that during this election year. Politicians on both sides of the aisle already have their eyes on November. Republicans are likely to be quick to pin the "tax and spend" label back on Democrats, and Democrats are likely to call tax-cutting Republicans "patrons of the rich."

We think both will find they have pleased more voters if they honor their balanced-budget goal and accomplish something of true note - such as shaping a program to shore up Social Security.

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