At this stage, the best way to assess the Clinton-Gore exercise in "reinventing government" is to regard it as a political exercise in reinventing the national image of this administration. The president and vice president campaigned as "new Democrats" determined to bring their party back to the mainstream and away from the left-liberal tilt that had led to successive election defeats. But since they took their oaths of office last January, they have been very much in an "old Democrats" mode.
President Clinton blundered right from the outset with his ill-fated, ill-considered proposal for a $16.3 billion stimulus -- an idea directly contradictory to his cries for budgetary discipline. Its defeat in economic terms was insignificant, but the political damage it did to the new man in the White House was immense. It set up Mr. Clinton for a solid Republican assault on his economic plan. As the GOP fired away at new taxes, the gunsmoke obscured deficit-containment efforts to reverse the profligacy of the Reagan-Bush era.
Now comes a much-needed antidote: Vice President Al Gore's program to combat government waste, over-staffing, red tape, mismanagement and disregard for the needs of taxpayers. This is the kind of policy direction both men championed as members of the Democratic Leadership Council. It is strictly mainstream and voter-friendly, and could help prop up Mr. Clinton's sagging poll ratings. Republicans may be reduced to trying to top it.
To make this more than just a one-week publicity splash, the president has the power and now the blueprint to institute instant reforms as a down payment on more to come. Granted, many of the changes will have to get the approval of a Congress that has long been a bulwark for the turf-protecting status quo. But if the Clinton-Gore team can point to real reforms quickly implemented, perhaps the vice president's report will not wind up gathering dust in a warehouse.
The figures trotted out at yesterday's launching are guesswork: cut 252,000 jobs out of government and save $108 billion through this and other efficiencies by the end of the century. But they do provide benchmarks to check the Clinton performance, and to determine Mr. Gore's future prospects.
In giving his vice president such a high-profile job, Mr. Clinton is not only doing a favor for a friend but is emphasizing that his reforms will come from inside the government service at its highest levels. In that regard, it differs from 11 reform proposals dating from 1905, most of which came mainly from private-sector outsiders with little knowledge of how government works.
We wish the administration well as it goes about "reinventing government." But this in no way should be a substitute for the spending cuts Mr. Clinton promised he would present to Congress later this year when his economic plan squeaked through to passage. Two reinventions that also need to be on the president's agenda are the reinvention of his administration and his party.