Washington. -- Robert Frost dismissed Carl Sandburg as the only poet to gain in translation. That is approximately the disdainful reaction of many Democrats to Bill Clinton's five-minute mini-homily on the budget Tuesday night.
Distilled to its essence, his volte-face -- five months ago he proposed large deficits; now he proposes balancing the budget -- suggests a slogan for his re-election race: "Me too, only slower." That is not a bugle call calculated to send a frisson through friend or foe, but perhaps it would sound better in some other language. Besides, Mr. Clinton's intervention in the budget process at least serves the purpose of proving that his presidency still has a pulse.
In just five minutes the president repudiated the budget he sent to Congress in February, and he promised to balance the budget in 10 years rather than the Republicans' seven years. As a candidate he promised to do it in five years but now he considers the Republicans' seven-year timetable a reckless endangerment of the economy.
He did not say how a $7 trillion economy can be discombobulated by cutting the deficit $60 billion in a year, which is the largest yearly cut in the House Republicans' plan. Laura Tyson, his chief economic adviser, says a seven-year goal is "arbitrary" but a 10-year goal is not. You figure it out.
Joseph Epstein, the essayist, wishes someone would invent a clock that tells both real and psychological time -- how long something is and how long it seems it is. President Clinton's five-minute talk must have seemed of Castro-like length to Democrats who for many months have been having such fun saying things like, "Our proposed 5.2 percent annual increase in school-lunch spending is sublimely just, but the Republicans' proposed 4.7 percent annual increase is fascistic." Mr. Clinton's talk washed away, like so many sand castles, the congressional Democrats' claims to be more than a merely reactive party, and to be operating on a higher moral plane than Republicans.
Until Tuesday night the congressional Republicans' stance toward the president regarding the budget was Samuel Goldwyn's stance toward subordinates: "If I want your opinion, I'll give it to you." Tuesday night the president said, in effect, "I'll take it."
His decision to trudge along in the van of Republican government-cutters, muttering "not so much, not so fast, cut there rather than here," comes during a spring punctuated by 5-4 Supreme Court rulings in important cases. (They have concerned term limits, affirmative action, school desegregation, the reach of the federal government's power under the commerce clause. More 5-4 decisions are possible in the next few weeks concerning church-state relations, racial gerrymandering, freedom of association and gay rights.) If presidents did not nominate Supreme Court justices, it might be hard to believe that next year's presidential election was important, at least concerning domestic matters.
There are now two parties committed to the propositions that government is too big and that people are not entitled to all the current entitlements. Perhaps most Democrats are not really committed in their broken hearts. But a party with a president is largely defined by him, absent an insurrection, and Mr. Clinton has until now seemed on his way to becoming the first Democratic president since FDR to run for re-election without a challenge from within his party. But now if Jesse Jackson does not run, he must forever hold his peace. Forever is a long time and holding his peace is not Mr. Jackson's specialty.
Harold Ickes, deputy White House chief of staff, says of the president's re-election campaign, "The overall message will be the change of direction. Here's what you had for the 12 years before 1992; here's where we have moved the country." But those denoted by the pronoun "we" -- President Clinton and his appointees -- are being moved by those who are moving the country by controlling Congress. No one believes Mr. Clinton has cheerfully chosen the direction he is now moving.
In 1992, for the first time since 1964, a Democrat won the White House without running against Washington. But in 1995 he is more committed than Ronald Reagan was, as a practical matter, an agenda that actually will result in curbing and cutting government.
Perhaps he is now positioned to offer himself to the country as the person best suited to the task of tempering Newt Gingrich. But is the country ready to regard the presidency as a mere weight in the saddle of the speaker of the House?
In 1992 he ran as The Expert, the master of policy who would make government perform wonders. Mark Twain said that, to Americans, "expert" just means a guy from out of town. Bill Clinton isn't that any more.
9- George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.