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Clinton's Race Against Time

By Rowland Evans and Robert Novak
Creators Syndicate Inc.
Friday, February 19, 1993; Page A21


The spectacular selling job by Bill Clinton Wednesday night in convincing Americans they really want massive new taxes is recognized by the president's congressional allies as a temporary reprieve that must be exploited quickly.

In fact, President Clinton's first address to a joint session of Congress reversed fierce public and political anger over his basic program, particularly higher taxes. The anger could easily return. "I don't think we have much time," one of Clinton's most enthusiastic boosters in the House told us. "It won't be hard to stir up opposition against it."

Opposition was growing in Democratic cloakrooms on both sides of the Capitol until Clinton pulled off his oratorical tour de force Wednesday night. Rhetoric aside, the program remains vulnerable to charges of being too light on spending cuts and too heavy on tax increases – the old Democratic "tax and spend" nostrum that has been transformed from the New Deal formula for winning elections to the party's albatross of the '80s.

Clinton is justly renowned as a master political tactician, but he is a rookie president whose botched tactics at the outset of his administration brought grave self-inflicted damage. In attempting a preemptive cure for the "pain" coming in the economic message, the president went too far.

His Monday night fireside chat was one of the least artful presidential 11 minutes in memory. He seemed lost in the chief executive's big chair. His text was hurried and graceless. As in his misconceived town meeting the week before, he was back in the campaign mode – harassing Republicans and "special interests." Clinton's negative poll ratings, dangerously high for a new president, were moving higher.

But Clinton's political hallmark is flexibility, and he shifted gears overnight. Before Congress, his ill-advised calls for "patriotism" and "sacrifice" were dropped. Only 12 minutes remained in his hour-long presentation when he got to taxes, and scarcely three minutes were left when, much less obtrusively than earlier in the week, he conceded breaking his promise not to raise middle-class taxes. Seeking to look presidential, and succeeding, he ditched the more partisan elements in his draft.

The post-speech mood of congressional Democrats was vast relief that their fears of an early Clinton meltdown were not realized. But the program itself had not changed, refuting lobbyist rumors of important last-minute rewrites.

Democratic lawmakers are still concerned by the stealthy disappearance of Clinton's post-election pledge, made by Budget Director Leon Panetta, that spending cuts would have a 2 to 1 dollar edge over tax increases. When asked privately by Democrats in Congress this week, the president in his inimitable style blandly denied the promise was made. His present plan gives the edge to tax increases over spending cuts by about 3 to 2, putting a firm political foundation under Republican tax-and-spend charges.

Even re-graduation of the tax system, supposedly a staple of Democratic politics, causes concern. Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the Senate Finance chairman, has publicly referred to the "hydraulic" nature of the tax system: Higher marginal rates pump income into whatever tax shelters are still left. Economic consequences of soaking the rich disturb more Democrats on Capitol Hill than is generally realized.

They also worry about the staying power of Clinton's effort to inoculate himself against the energy tax by saying it will cost taxpayers at the $30,000-a-year level only about $17 a month. This consumption tax is Clinton's one big step away from liberal orthodoxy, and it bothers many Democrats.

The energy tax stems from his urge to corral Ross Perot and his remarkable 19 percent electoral showing in November by producing good deficit-reduction numbers. But even after a private half-hour pep talk Wednesday from super-salesman Clinton, the billionaire independent was sounding like an old-fashioned Republican with his demand for a balanced budget constitutional amendment.

The president's model is New Jersey Gov. Jim Florio, who followed the advice of Clinton political strategist James Carville and soon after his 1989 election jammed through a huge tax increase before Republican legislators had found their seats.

But it is not so easy in Washington. House Whip Newt Gingrich boasts that the minority can slow things down even on a bad day, and the Senate is made for obstructionist tactics. The Republicans can kill time, and time is the enemy of President Clinton.

© Copyright 1993 The Washington Post Company

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