Suddenly it's no longer "Hallelujah" time for the Clinton White House. Instead, the president is reduced to George Bush's old plaint of "gridlock and delay" up on Capitol Hill, currently the scene of another tawdry exercise in mal-government or mis-government or non-government, take your pick.
By the end of this week, operating all alone, the Democrats in control of both the executive and legislative branches hope to conjure a budget bill out of a hopelessly over-lobbied conference committee. Then, they plan to pass the measure next week and race off to an August recess.
Nothing much new there, to be sure, and no miracles in sight in the legislation that will finally emerge. Deficit spending will be pared all of $100 billion a year on average, from $300 billion to $200 billion by the end of the next half-decade, which will add another $1 trillion to the national debt. And while the country adjusts to new taxes and spending cuts, the uncertainty that has plagued business and discouraged new hiring will remain. Why? Because health care reform, which will require new revenues from somewhere, will hang out there as next year's fiscal question mark.
All this adds up to a vast letdown from the heady hyperbole of the Clinton campaign. The over-promiser of 1992 has become the over-compromiser of 1993, a leader either unable or unwilling to make things palpably better. His economic package, if it actually redistributes wealth more fairly, restores part of the revenue base and provides some "investments" in the country's future, will do so only marginally and with unpredictable effects on the nation's economic growth.
How did this happen? Where lies the blame?
Because they are in charge, the Democrats have much to answer for. Right at the start of the new administration they spurned the Republicans, saying they didn't need them. Since then they have been mainly negotiating among themselves, a spectacle that exposes a badly fragmented party.
But if matters have reached a pretty low point for Democrats, consider the depths to which the Republicans have sunk. Instead of being the loyal opposition, they are a negative apparition, a political force that has opted out of the game of mapping the nation's fiscal policy. Not a single GOP legislator voted for the budget plans that squeaked through the House and Senate. The ironic result: pending legislation is a lot more liberal than if it had some Republican fingerprints. So what goes on the law books at the end of this sad tale will be a Democrats-only bill. That or a patched-up continuation of the status quo as a crippled administration contemplates its next three years in office.
It need not be like this. The Founding Fathers did not plan it to be like this. American voters have signaled again and again that they don't want it to be like this. Meanwhile, the established American political parties invite the kind of repudiation that threatens their counterparts in other industrial democracies. And Ross Perot waits in the wings.