In sports, a win is a win, no matter how close the score. By that rule, President Clinton is entitled to claim that passage of his budget--and his earlier victories on family leave and national service--show he's making headway in reversing 12 years of Republican rule.
The victory, however, was ugly and cost Clinton much of the political capital he'll need for the difficult fights ahead on health care, trade, and welfare reform. Still, if the Clintonites are smart they'll take away some lessons from the budget struggle that will serve them well.
For starters, Clinton the candidate was an outsider, promising to smash gridlock and bring change to Washington. Clinton the President turned out to be too much the consummate pol, readily cutting deals and casting his fate with the entrenched, liberal congressional leadership.
A WAR. It's late, but Clinton can regain his outsider status and his claim to be a Democrat of new ideas. That would help win back some of Ross Perot's followers. One key is standing up to Congress. A study for the centrist Democratic Leadership Council by White House pollster Stanley Greenberg found that Perot backers have chillier feelings toward Congress than toward any other institution. Congress, he writes, "seems to represent everything these voters dislike about politics in this age."
How can Clinton go to war with Congress and still hope to prevail in legislative battles to come? That delicate feat, say the experts, will require two actions Clinton failed to take in the budget fight. He must sell his case directly to the American people, and he must build coalitions on Capitol Hill that don't depend on either party's leadership.
Clinton's economic program was launched brilliantly by his February State of the Union speech, which sounded New Democrat themes of individual responsibility and private enterprise. But the Administration let the GOP take control of the debate when it clung to a stimulus package funding many old-style programs. Not until the last days of the battle did the White House make inroads against GOP charges that the budget was just another tax-and-spend plan. Clinton "has to sell a plan to the people in a way that they understand what they are getting," says DLC President Al From. "If he can build popular support, he will find sledding a lot easier in Congress."
Clinton's reliance on the Democratic leadership helped turn the budget into a partisan civil war. He can't afford another. Because of divisions among Democrats, health-care reform and the North American Free Trade Agreement can win only if they get bipartisan backing. Coalition-building offers a side benefit for Clinton, too. "He needs to broaden his base of support sufficiently so that no one can hold him hostage," says political scientist Allen Schick of the University of Maryland.
The White House seems to be learning. Hillary Rodham Clinton, who heads the health-care task force, has been meeting with GOP Senators John H. Chafee of Rhode Island, James M. Jeffords of Vermont, and Dave Durenberger of Minnesota. And on Aug. 11, the Administration announced a tough crime bill that may unite fractious Democrats and draw Perot voters and Republicans. "We're anxious to work in a positive way with Republicans," says White House aide Mark Gearan.
If Clinton wants to build a broad new coalition, he must continue to move in this centrist direction. But it will take strong leadership. "There's always a constituency for the old way," says From. "But there's no readily apparent constituency for a new approach. The bias is to save the old." Giving in to that bias almost doomed Clinton in the budget fight. Going to war on Washington inertia could revitalize his Presidency.