After what seemed like an eternity sitting on the sidelines as a mute observer, President Clinton wisely has rejoined the Deficit Brigade already marching into battle on Capitol Hill. But he's waited so long that Republicans firmly control the deficit-cutting agenda. At least the president is once again a participant in the budget discussions -- as he should have been all along.
It was a sad day when Mr. Clinton bought the argument of his political advisers in 1994 and abandoned his two-year effort to make deficit-reduction a central theme of his administration. Republicans gleefully filled the void and have monopolized the debate ever since. They have rightly upbraided him for choosing the politically expedient role of constant critic rather than offering constructive alternatives of his own.
Now Mr. Clinton has reversed direction again. The vague budget-cutting outline he presented Tuesday night in a brief televised address attempts to minimize the pain of federal aid reductions and tries to position the administration plan as less cold-hearted than the Draconian cuts required under the House Republican plan or even the more moderate Senate Republican proposal. Much of what he is suggesting recycles previously rejected ideas or embraces Republican concepts. But at least Mr. Clinton has something he can bring to the table when serious negotiations begin this fall.
Liberal Democrats in Congress, looking for short-term political gain, are furious that their leader put forth a deficit plan at all. They wanted to continue the strategy of fiery opposition to GOP cuts, whipping up a public frenzy over the potentially hurtful impact of reductions in Medicaid, Medicare and other domestic-spending programs. Yet that ignores the danger to Democrats if their strategy leads to gridlock and they enter next year's national elections as the party that resisted all efforts to stem the flow of federal red ink.
Despite Republican dominance of the budget issue, Mr. Clinton retains a pivotal role. His veto power gives him leverage. By finally coming up with his own set of options, the president can better impact the flow of events on the Hill -- and in the crucial negotiations this fall. Offering such a plan, said HUD secretary Henry Cisneros, "was the price of admission into the debate."
Mr. Clinton took a decidedly presidential stand. He guaranteed that there will be some kind of deficit-reduction program. No longer is that exclusively a Republican initiative. The battle now will be fought over the shape and depth of the specific budget cuts. It is an important step forward, one that puts the White House and GOP leaders in Congress, at least temporarily, on the same side.