Democrats in Congress are starting to figure that if they hang together they can let the Republicans hang themselves separately. The object of the exercise is to make the GOP largely irrelevant to the sweeping economic reform process launched by President Clinton by keeping Democratic majorities intact for showdown votes.
That this is Mr. Clinton's strategy is becoming more and more evident as he makes extraordinary concessions to the deficit hawks in his party -- to the conservatives and moderates who have felt the White House is relying too heavily on higher taxes and not enough on spending cuts.
In some quarters there was an initial assumption that these Democratic skeptics would be natural allies for Republicans seeking to put together a conservative coalition. But Mr. Clinton decided to deal rather that dig in his heels. When Democrats on the House Budget Committee demanded spending reductions totaling $55 billion over five years, the White House quickly said no problem. When they then upped the ante to $63 billion, the president gave thumbs up on his morning jog. When the Senate Budget Committee chairman went still higher, asking cuts of $90 billion, even that received a non-combative response.
What's going on? Is this just a president who detests conflict and aims to please? Don't believe it. This is a chief executive who has no problems with the "vision thing." He knows what he wants. And in the case of the economic package, he seems quite willing to put old priorities on the chopping block in order to gain the new priorities designed to put his imprimatur on American government.
Health care reform has to top the list, but up there in the Clinton pecking order are education, retraining, programs for children, research and development and other initiatives designed to offer new opportunity and upward mobility for achievers who will protect U.S. world leadership.
Even as Mr. Clinton was acceding to demands for more spending cuts in existing programs, the pressure was still on for cutbacks in his controversial $16.3 billion "stimulus" package. As the recovery chugs along, the new president obviously would like a few monuments to show he has had something to do with it. So chances are he will get a summer jobs program, a boost in Head Start funding and a pilot effort in offsetting college costs through national service. But Clinton requests for roads, bridges and other old-time public works will probably go by the boards. Once again, the man in the White House will deal.
Where does this leave Republicans? The short answer is nowhere, so long as Mr. Clinton does not stumble. Some Republicans are quite happy to be out of the ball game, throwing in rocks from the stands. But others want in on the action. It will be fascinating to see if dealmaker Clinton gives them an opening when he needs them.