In ramming his budget resolution through Congress almost intact, President Clinton has displayed the kind of relentless determination that politicians respect. This was his first real test on Capitol Hill, and by showing he would accept nothing short of victory he may well have strengthened his position for tougher battles later on.
Like Ronald Reagan a dozen years ago, only in reverse, this is a president determined to change the course of government. And to begin his particular kind of activist liberal revolution, he realized (as did Mr. Reagan) that he had to display his mastery on the Hill. To this end, he relied on legislative heavyweights in both the House and the Senate to deny Republicans and conservative Democrats any real chance to offer amendments, however enticing or compelling they might have been to straddlers.
There is risk in this strategy. While President Reagan needed -- and got -- crucial help from Democratic "boll weevils" to win bipartisan passage of his supply-side economic package, Mr. Clinton required Democrats in Congress to take their stand in a series of party-line votes. If economic conditions do not improve or if the administration fails to meet its budget projections during the next four years, Democrats will have to answer to the voters.
In the House of Representatives, for example, only two of the 255 Democrats dared to vote against their new president on all three roll calls the administration considered crucial. That is astounding. In the Senate, again only two of 57 Democrats opposed the budget resolution and one was appointed Sen. Bob Krueger, who had tacit White House approval to go his own way to bolster his chances in a special Texas election May 1.
Just as Mr. Reagan ran into trouble late in his first presidential year, Mr. Clinton's early success may encounter rough going when Congress has to enact actual tax increases or program cuts. The president even may have to compromise next week on his $16.3 billion "stimulus" bill, but it will be marginal. Democrats are now firmly locked into the Clinton program to raise taxes, cut defense spending, increase domestic "investments" and reduce annual deficits from the current $300 billion level to $200 billion over five years. Republicans, meanwhile, have been relegated to ritual opposition. They are not needed and pose little threat.
What Bill Clinton is driving to do is big and ambitious. He is politician enough to know if a president does not nail down major accomplishments in his first year, his clout diminishes. Americans have sent a president into the Oval Office with the political savvy Jimmy Carter lacked, the knowledge of government process Ronald Reagan ignored and the vision George Bush never had.