WASHINGTON -- President Clinton is taking a significant political risk with his decision to offer a budget alternative to Republican proposals already on the fast track.
On the one hand, the president is recognizing the political reality that he cannot afford to be a passive bystander in the process of reducing the federal deficit. And the White House is well aware of opinion polls that show voters fear the Republicans might be moving too far too fast. So it makes some sense at one level to offer a less radical plan.
On the other hand, he has left his liberal Democratic supporters out on a limb by joining the Republicans in agreeing on cuts in Medicare and Medicaid and in offering a competing tax reduction plan. It is obviously difficult for the liberals to make Medicare a test of national intentions when their own president joins in the efforts to pare it back.
There is no mystery about the political calculations being made here. Clinton was elected with 43 percent of the vote in 1992 and needs to broaden his appeal across the great center of the electorate to win a second term next year -- an imperative he believes requires that he reinforce the image he tried to project as a "different kind of Democrat" willing to reverse decades of social spending increases.
But the president's position is undermined by his history of reversing direction and trying to placate his political adversaries. To those liberal Democrats, the new Clinton budget plan is just another example of playing me-too politics on issues of singular importance to them.
Only five months ago Clinton appeared to have abandoned the role of deficit reducer when he offered a dead-on-arrival budget that showed a small increase in debt. And he underlined his position as a conciliator by trying to match the Republican tax reduction plan with one of his own.
The alternative would have been to tell the voters that as attractive as a tax cut might be, it would be irresponsible to make such reductions right now. That would have allowed the Democrats to focus clearly on the way the Republican tax reduction is canted toward the affluent.
Then the president could have chosen to fight the good fight on each appropriation measure. There are, after all, enough Democrats in both houses of Congress to sustain vetoes if it came to that kind of hard bargaining next fall. The notion of the government shutting down in gridlock is too far-fetched to be taken seriously.
Now, however, the prospect is for widening divisions among Democrats in Congress and between those on the left and the White House on the single most important issue to be settled just as the 1996 presidential campaign begins in earnest this fall.
It is impossible to forecast now how these divisions and Clinton's posture will play out.
The White House calculation is based in part on the probably forlorn hope that erstwhile supporters of Ross Perot can be beguiled by Clinton's display of seriousness in attacking the deficit. But the experience of 1992 tells us that the independent from Texas always can find a rationale for making political mischief despite attempts to placate him.
In any case, there are also other political imperatives confronting the president going into the campaign. One of the underlying factors in the election disaster suffered by the Democrats last Nov. 8 was a decline in the turnout among core party constituencies, including blacks and low-income voters in general.
This is something Clinton needs to reverse to win a second term. But more to the point, it is something that Democrats in the Senate and House must reverse if they are to survive themselves next year. Liberal constituencies may be only part of the coalition for a Clinton success, but in some states and many congressional districts they are the one essential element for success.
In Clinton's case, the problem is compounded by the fact so few of the Democrats in Congress feel any serious commitment to him. One of the most striking aspects of the political dialogue since the 1994 Democratic defeat has been the silence of Democrats in Congress who otherwise might have been expected to speak up for their president.
At the most extreme, the divisions over the budget could bring someone into the field to challenge the president for the nomination, although that is still unlikely. The one certainty is that the budget initiative is likely to mean a divided Democratic Party entering the campaign.