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Democrats Out on a Limb


President Clinton just has to triumph in today's expected House vote on his core economic plan. A defeat for the new chief executive, lately the butt of jokes nationally, would be devastating to his administration, his party and the country. Whatever citizens may think of his sorry performance in his first four months in office, we believe the majority cringe at the prospect of a failed president.

Although Mr. Clinton can prevail in the House only by compromising with deficit hawks who are determined to restrain runaway government benefit programs, he need not -- and should not -- take that as a setback. On the contrary, a more austere program would fit with the country's mood and his own stated hopes for controlling deficits.

It is understandable why so many Democratic lawmakers fear the political consequences of the Clinton package. They are being asked to approve $275.5 billion in new revenues over five years, yet at the end of that period, by the administration's calculation, the federal government will still be running $200 billion deficits that could go higher.

Luckily for the president -- although he doesn't see it that way -- a number of conservative House Democrats are forcing him to get more of a grip on such popular entitlement programs as Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, veterans benefits and farm subsidies. While conservatives may not succeed in securing specific reductions in advance, they are likely to get an approach that would require the president to ask for retrospective cuts on entitlement spending that exceeds ceilings set out in budget resolutions. Congress then would have the options of raising taxes, cutting spending or, right out in the open, borrowing the money and adding to the national debt.

Having watched Congress evade any number of schemes to stop the deficit spending, taxpayers have every right to be skeptical of such a compromise. Specific caps in advance would be preferable. But the Clinton White House then might face a liberal revolt and any Democratic claim to being able to govern.

The trickier task facing the president is what to do about a more dangerous rebellion in the Senate by Democratic conservatives led by Sen. David L. Boren of Oklahoma. At this juncture, Mr. Boren is sticking with a straight-out cut in benefits. But he also is proposing to kill the proposed energy tax, so in deficit terms his formula is pretty much a wash. If the nation is to ward off another $1 trillion rise in the national debt during Mr. Clinton's term, it needs to keep the bulk of his tax program while putting real curbs on government spending.

Incompetence in the White House and laughable gaffes by Mr. Clinton himself -- his $200 haircut, the cronyism so evident in Travelgate -- do not brighten his prospects as he faces one of the key showdown votes of his presidency. But he must prevail. And to do so, he would be well advised to return to the moderate, mainstream, "New Democrat" policies that brought him victory last year.

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