WASHINGTON -- Underlying the tension between the White House and Democrats in Congress on the budget are conflicting agendas for the 1996 election campaign.
For President Clinton, the first priority must be broadening his base of 43 percent of the electorate -- his share in 1992 -- to reach a majority. Although there may be a third-party candidate in the end, the White House strategy necessarily must be based on the premise of a head-to-head campaign against a Republican nominee.
To reach that 51 percent, Clinton's strategy is to remind voters that he is, as promised in 1992, "a different kind of Democrat" willing to make hard choices on spending programs in the interest of reducing the federal deficit.
But for congressional Democrats -- and particularly those in the House -- the imperative is to shore up support among core constituencies of the party, including blacks, union members, the aged and low-income workers for whom such social programs as Medicare and Medicaid are especially important.
To some degree, this priority has been raised by the results of the 1994 midterm election in which the Democrats lost 52 seats. The survivors of that campaign tend to come from districts heavily peopled with those core constituencies. In Georgia, to cite an extreme example, the Democrats now hold only three of 11 House seats -- all in districts with large black populations.
Beyond this question of survival, however, House Democrats recognize that 1996 will be critical to their long-term future. Unless the Democrats pick up 14 seats and regain control of the House next year, it will become increasingly difficult to do so as shaky Republican incumbents strengthen their positions. The stakes are enormous. Newt Gingrich as minority leader might be a nuisance, but hardly the menacing and dominating figure he is as speaker of the House today.
On the face of it, a net gain of 14 seats seems a tall order when the Republicans appear to be controlling the political agenda and Clinton remains an iffy bet for re-election. However, there are changes in the political context that could help the Democrats.
For one thing, voter turnout in a presidential election year is routinely heavier than in off years, and most of the increase comes from voters more inclined to support Democrats. In 1994, turnout among blacks, for instance, was particularly low.
The Democrats also have realistic chances of reversing results in some districts in which Republican candidates with limited credentials were carried in by the anti-Democratic tide. There are, for example, at least two of the six seats gained by the Democrats in Washington state that offer at least competitive opportunities.
Among House Democrats, the thinking has been that the best opportunity for exploiting these opportunities lies in playing conventional class-warfare politics -- that is, in attacking the Republican plans to reduce Medicare and to give a tax reduction to affluent taxpayers. But that line obviously has been undermined by Clinton's proposal to cut Medicare, even if at a more modest rate.
But the Democrats are facing formidable obstacles in the contest for control of the House even if they are right in their strategic approach. There are still 12 to 15 Democrats, mostly in the South and far West, who might be vulnerable themselves next time although they escaped last Nov. 8.
And, perhaps more importantly, there is the possibility that there will be as many as 15 or 20 Democratic incumbents, many with long service, who decide to retire rather than continue serving in the House minority.
That phenomenon already is apparent in the Senate, where five incumbents are stepping down in situations in which the Republicans will be rated as even money or better next year.
Indeed, among political professionals, it is already being assumed that the Republicans will increase their 54-46 majority in the Senate next year.
All of these calculations are, of course, subject to change as the presidential campaign takes shape. A flawed Republican nominee would change the dynamics. So would another run as an independent by Ross Perot.
But politicians must play the cards they have been dealt. The problem for Clinton and Democrats in Congress today is that they are playing different games.