And now the budget battle begins

The Monitor's Richard L. Strout was the smartest observer of the American political scene I've ever known. Dick would boil it all down. "It's the economy," he would say, "the outcome always turns on the economy." Already the economy is the issue for the congressional elections next year and for the presidential election of 2004.

The president calls the recent economic slowdown a "correction" and asserts that his big tax cut will soon kick in and bring about better days. But should that optimism not prove out, Mr. Bush is set to capture the issue anyway by claiming that the economic lag began in the last year of the Clinton administration and that Bill Clinton is to blame. It's a no-lose approach. But the voters might not buy it.

Indeed, the Democrats are counting on the public not buying it. Recently, both Democratic leaders Tom Daschle and Dick Gephardt were telling reporters over breakfast that Bush already is being widely perceived as being responsible for the protracted slowdown in the economy.

Both of these leaders say that Bush's tax cut has done nothing to help the economy - that it might even bring on a recession.

Which side is right? The economists I read and listen to seem divided. Some see the slowdown bottoming out by late fall or early winter and the economy then starting gradually to turn up. Others are more pessimistic, seeing no light at the end of the tunnel - at least for some time now.

So the blame game on the economy is heating up in Washington. But the current battle in Congress focuses on the shrinking surplus and how it is to be spent. Bush's strategy is becoming clear. Certainly that big tax cut of his was to boost the economy (and maybe it will). But his real purpose was to cut back on the billions that otherwise would have been spent by Congress (mainly the Democrats) on social programs.

Bush himself is pushing hard for one big, expensive social program: his initiative to improve education. And he's asking for large amounts of money for his revamped defense system. Then, there simply won't be much money left for other programs unless Congress dips into the Social Security surplus. Bush will blame the Democrats if that occurs.

So a big blame game may lie ahead - if that Social Security surplus is used. The Democrats will be saying, of course, that Bush brought about the necessity for tapping Social Security by his big tax cut. And the voters just might be blaming both parties, remembering pledges by both Bush and Al Gore not to invade that Social Security "lock box."

How will it all turn out? Well, at least for now, Bush has a good performance rating in the polls. That can be a wind behind a president's back in a fight for his programs. Already he's made much progress with his education program. It seems that he'll be able to sign an education bill that will be up to his hopes.

But Bush's defense request is headed for a real battle. No longer is there a cold-war backdrop with the deep anxieties that provided congressional support for big-spending defense programs. And there's also a shrinking number of veterans in Congress who, in the past, could be counted on to back defense bills.

So I think Bush will fight hard for defense plans. But I believe, in the end, he will have to accept a smaller amount of money than asked. He may be able to put his imaginative nuclear-missile-shield defense into effect - but the implementation may well have to be spread out over a number of years.

How about such social programs as the prescription drug benefit for the elderly? Congress, including many Republicans as well as most Democrats, wants a bigger benefit than does Bush. On this one, Bush probably will have to give in, unless there simply isn't enough money left - after education and defense - for a bigger program.

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