Clinton's Spoonful Of Sugar May Make The Medicine Go Down

Democratic liberals--who thought the defeat of George Bush meant an end to 12 years of Republican assaults on domestic programs--have been strangely quiet as Bill Clinton has gone at the budget with an ax. Even Clinton's Mar. 10 agreement to cut still deeper didn't trigger an explosion of outrage. What's going on here? Simple. A display of Clinton's trademark political mastery. The President, having first channeled public discontent into support for his economic program, has now lined up both wings of his fractious party to drive the plan through Congress.

The secret to holding together liberal constituencies, including big-city mayors and labor, is the dollop of social spending that Clinton ladled into his budget. The stimulus package "was the political grease" that got liberals on board, says a Clinton adviser. While ostensibly intended to give the economy a boost, most of the $16 billion in extra spending slated for the next two years would go to programs near and dear to liberal hearts--such as summer jobs for urban youth, community-development grants, mass transit, child nutrition, and Head Start.

POLITICS FIRST. But conservatives and moderates rebelled at the proposed new spending. With Republicans boycotting Clinton's program, the White House couldn't afford to lose more than a handful of Democrats on Capitol Hill.

After feverish negotiations, the White House agreed to up to $90 billion in additional cuts through 1998. Details are sparse, and the mechanism for enforcing the deal remains sketchy, but deeper spending cuts are coming. Clinton will have to accept a scale-back of his long-term "investment" program, but the short-term stimulus remains intact.

"It's a win-win situation," says Representative Timothy J. Penny (D-Minn.), a leader of the moderates. "I don't think anybody has a lot to complain about."

With the economy moving along at a much brisker clip than expected, most economists agree that Clinton's stimulus will do little good. But the program is crafted with an eye to politics, not economics, and that's why the White House couldn't take the easy way out by chucking the package.

FEW STRINGS. Mayors--and inner-city House members--are delighted with the largess. On Mar. 5, more than 30 city leaders lined up behind Clinton to announce their support for his plan. A few days later, the President dropped in to schmooze at the National League of Cities meeting. "We've been neglected for many years," says Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke. "We look at the stimulus package as an investment that will help us get back on our feet."

It will help hard-pressed mayors as well as their cities. The mayors will get some "walking-around" money, including $2.5 billion in new Community Development Block Grants and $1 billion in extra funding for summer jobs programs for youth. That's the kind of money that big-city pols like best--funds with few strings attached that can be dispensed for maximum political benefit. Conservatives deride the spending as a political payoff. "This was like writing a check to get mayors' support," says analyst Stuart Butler of the Heritage Foundation. And even White House officials admit that the cash infusion is just a palliative for the cities until the Administration completes a larger urban strategy, which will include enterprise zones, community-development banks, and welfare reform.

Those proposals lie several weeks in the future and will produce new stresses among Democrats. For now, however, Clinton has shown that it's possible to achieve at least temporary unity within the party. All it takes is a few billion dollars and a shrewd politician-in-chief in the White House.

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