"There's a lot I have to learn about this town," President Clinton remarked this week after a Republican filibuster killed his jobs-stimulus bill in the Senate. Indeed there is. But before this setback is chalked up solely to his inexperience, a word needs to be said about inept Democratic leadership on Capitol Hill. Not only did it fail to keep its own troops in line, or to warn Mr. Clinton of disaffection in the ranks, but it totally misjudged what was happening in the Republican camp.
How, one might ask, could Senate Democratic leaders go so wrong? Much of the blame must be assigned to an arrogant White House, which blundered every step of the way on its path to defeat. But the majority leadership, along with most of the political establishment in Washington, failed to perceive how Republican defeat in November has changed dynamics within the GOP.
For the 12 years of the Reagan-Bush era, Republican supply-siders with their radical indifference to the exponential growth of federal debt were in control. They preached fiscal conservatism but did not practice it. Moderate Republicans, a dwindling band since the 1964 Goldwater revolution, would occasionally break ranks to side with the Democrats on social issues. But their bedrock reason for clinging to the GOP was their belief in balanced budgets and old-fashioned austerity.
After the defeat of George Bush, Republican moderates were free at last. They could preach the good gospel of tailoring expenditures to income instead of putting them on the national credit card.
Mr. Clinton had natural allies in the likes of Sens. John Chafee, Mark Hatfield, Arlen Specter and James Jeffords -- moderate Republicans all -- if only he had stuck to his campaign promise to be "a new kind of Democrat" with a mainstream aversion to deficits. Instead, he alienated these Republicans. To assuage liberal constituencies that gave him his 43 percent plurality in November, Mr. Clinton fudged his budget message with a $19 billion stimulus bill that would add to the deficit.
Little did he realize this would philosophically offend GOP moderates far more than supply-siders. Little did he foresee that by using inflammatory tactics, he would pull off the miracle of uniting the 43 Republicans in the Senate and goad them into a filibuster that killed the stimulus bill.
Mr. Clinton can easily put this defeat behind him if he perceives how much he has in common not only with Republican moderates but Democratic moderates (such as the three Bs, John Breaux, David Boren and Richard Bryan) whose urgings for early compromise were ignored. Important legislation is just down the road: an economic plan to curb the size of annual deficits, a health care reform to control medical costs and widen access to treatment, and trade pacts to free up world commerce. If Mr. Clinton has learned from this setback that Democratic liberals and Republican supply-siders do not offer a way out of this nation's economic mess, he may have better luck next time.