WASHINGTON -- Many Republicans and some editorialists seem to agree that President Clinton's plan to create a deficit reduction trust fund is a political gimmick. Imagine that.
The fact is, of course, that it is not only a gimmick but just the latest in a series of gimmicks that have been enacted or proposed by both parties to prevent the politicians from doing what comes naturally, which is spending money on their constituents rather than something as ungrateful as the federal debt. That goal inspired the Gramm-Rudman law a few years ago, and it lies behind demands for a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution.
And the message in all these cases is that the electorate is so cynical about the intentions of elected officials that the politicians feel obliged to go to any length to demonstrate they are no longer hooked on spending.
In President Clinton's case, the proposal obviously is intended to provide a layer of protective covering that might persuade voters all those new taxes passed out of the House Ways and Means Committee will not be frittered away.
"I realize some have said it is little more than a gimmick," the president said of his trust fund at his news conference yesterday, "but the truth is there is no legal protection now for the life of the budget for these funds. This will provide it in stone, in law."
In fact, the notion of the trust fund being written in stone is a little far-fetched. No president or Congress can tie the hands of successor Congresses. But Clinton's goal in providing what White House economic adviser Robert E. Rubin called "a belt-and-suspenders kind of measure" is to buy at least a little credibility before the package endures what is certain to be harsh scrutiny in the Senate.
The pressure on Clinton seems to be growing more intense every day. He has just completed what the White House considers "a good week" with the action by the House Ways and Means Committee on the budget, Senate approval of the motor-voter registration bill after cracking a Republican filibuster and the president out where he seems most at ease -- talking directly to voters on the campaign trail.
Yet he returned to Washington to be greeted with the news that the latest Gallup-CNN poll finds his approval rating has dropped from 55 percent to 45 percent while his disapproval rating has crept up to 44 percent. Other surveys find more than 60 percent of voters -- 70 percent in some polls -- now saying the country is "off on the wrong track," the kind of figures that can cause panic for any incumbent.
Clinton professed to be unconcerned in his news conference. He is, he said, "trying to do hard things," which always causes some polarization. "If I worried about the poll ratings," he said, "I'd never get anything done here."
In truth, however, Clinton and his advisers are clearly quite worried about the poll ratings. That is why he is willing to take a flyer on the trust-fund gimmick.
And it is why he has been out to Cleveland, Chicago and New York this week and is taking off for California next week.
What the president understands quite fully is that he must drive up the numbers to make it easier for fellow Democrats to stand with him in Congress. The perception that he has been badly wounded would be menacing, indeed, because the usual rule in Washington is that bleeding politicians are allowed to bleed to death unless they bind up their own wounds. There are far more sharks than Good Samaritans.
Clinton and his advisers in the White House can draw some comfort, however, from two other facts of political life these days. One is that the polls are so volatile. The figures often suggest a harder formulation of opinion than exists in the electorate and can change almost overnight. The other is that Clinton is an extraordinarily tenacious and resourceful politician, as he demonstrated so clearly during his campaign for the White House a year ago. If he wins a few, some of those who are distancing themselves from him today will find reasons to return to his side tomorrow.
In the meantime, the first imperative for the new president is to persuade Americans that his budget package is a serious attempt to atone for the fiscal madness of the past and to attack the fundamental weaknesses in the economy. If that requires a gimmick, Clinton would be foolish not to seize on it. He won't be the first.