Clinton gets to change the subject


WASHINGTON -- If Cal Ripken hits a dying-swan bloop single just over the second baseman's head, someone in the dugout will say, "That's going to look like a line drive in the box score."

The same thinking can be applied to the politics of President Clinton's triumph in the House of Representatives. On the face of it, no one should be marveling at a freshly elected Democratic president getting his budget through an overwhelmingly Democratic House.

But considering Mr. Clinton's precarious political position these days, this bloop single is going to look like a triple off the wall.

There is no particular mystery about this. Much of politics is blue smoke and mirrors -- the atmospherics that dictate who is considered to have the momentum, who is ready for the life-support systems. And the new president has been suffering so many wounds, most of them self-inflicted, that any success inevitably will be viewed as disproportionately important.

In one sense, of course, the triumph was not just important but probably politically vital. If Mr. Clinton's budget had been rejected only four months into his term, the picture of him and his administration as hopelessly inept obviously would have been reinforced. As Rep. Charles E. Schumer, a loyalist Democrat from New York, put it during the debate: "If we don't vote for the president, we cut him off at the knees early in his term. We can't do that."

But, quite beyond averting disaster, there are some positive lessons for Mr. Clinton's future that can be drawn from the outcome in the House.

The first and most obvious is that the success there changes the subject, which is always something devoutly to be wished by any politician in as much trouble as the president. Now there will be something to talk about other than Mr. Clinton's spiffy $200 haircut and the clumsy handling of the White House travel office controversy.

Secondly, the outcome suggests the president understands the value of making both deals and compromises to salvage most if not all of the loaf. One key factor in the result clearly was the face-saving deal that allows conservative Democrats to say they pressured the White House into a position in which runaway entitlement programs will be subjected to annual reviews.

One of the burdens under which Mr. Clinton has labored has been the perception that he is some greenhorn from Arkansas who doesn't have the political skills to play in the big leagues. It is a picture Mr. Clinton himself painted when he embarked on the suicidal course of trying to force his jobs-stimulus bill through the Senate without first enlisting any Republican support.

Finally, the vote for the Clinton budget showed some recognition on the part of some House Democrats that they have a stake as a party in whether or not the president succeeds. Veterans of the congressional wars were saying yesterday that the single most effective argument for supporting the president was the alternative picture of the Democrats perpetuating the same gridlock that has evokes so much anger from the electorate in the last year or two.

As House Speaker Tom Foley said in closing the debate on the floor: "The worst thing we could do, the worst consequence, is to do nothing."

No one finds it easy or politically prudent to vote for higher taxes.

"This is not an easy bill to vote for," Mr. Foley told his colleagues. But there was enough popular support for the Clinton plan when it was first advanced -- long before he began shooting himself in the foot -- to indicate voters were willing to take a chance on the kind of radical change they appeared to demand when 62 percent of them voted against an incumbent president last November.

The success in the House doesn't solve Mr. Clinton's political problems or even the budget problem itself. On the contrary, the president faces a whole new round of challenges in taking the plan before the Senate, whose members generally are less susceptible to small pressures simply because they are more politically insulated by their six-year terms. Mr. Clinton can look forward to another critical vote there next month and perhaps still another when the compromise conference report comes back to the House.

But that is something for the president to worry about tomorrow. For the moment, Mr. Clinton at least has escaped with his political skin. To paraphrase an old honky-tonk ballad, he's been down so long it looks like up to him.

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