President Clinton keeps discovering that in Washington people don't make friends, they merely share interests. That became resoundingly clear once again in the days after he announced his second try this year at writing a budget, which he presented last Tuesday night. By far, the loudest outcry and the angriest reactions came from his own party.
To Democrats, the president's plan smacked of GOP Budget Lite, blurring the lines between parties. Instead of balancing the budget in seven years, Mr. Clinton pushed back the target a little, shooting for balance in 10 years. Where Republicans slashed discretionary spending for schools and roads by 30 percent, Mr. Clinton cut back by 20 percent, using the savings to keep education spending intact. Among other cuts totaling $1.1 trillion, the president even offered a new slimmed-down version of health care reform, "a first step" that promised deficit reductions of $271 billion over 10 years. Still, the president argued, "There are fundamental differences" between what he was attempting to do and what the GOP was after.
But congressional Democrats saw it differently. "He's moved closer to the Republicans," said an influential Senate aide. "He's made their efforts more palatable. He's sold the farm."
The timing of the president's budget was also criticized because it did not allow the full impact of the GOP's budget-gouging plans to sink into the public psyche. But what most inflamed Democrats were the cuts that Mr. Clinton had proposed for Medicare, the health care program for the elderly. Just last January, in his State of the Union message, the president had implored Republicans to keep Medicare off the budget-cutting table, as they had done with Social Security.
Martin O. Sabo of Minnesota, the ranking member of the House Budget Committee, told a closed-door session of the party's caucus that the budget cuts the president proposed for Medicare could turn out to be as much as $190 billion, not the $127 billion the administration announced.
Not surprisingly, reaction among the House Republican leadership bordered on smug, so sure were they that the president's new budget had provided them with the political cover they needed to make the huge cuts required to balance the budget in seven years.
Senate Republicans were no different. "The president's address was a victory for the Republican plan to balance the budget because he finally acknowledged the reality of the fiscal problems our country faces," said Sen. Spencer Abraham of Michigan, a member of the Budget Committee.
Even where there were shared interests, reaction to the new budget was conditional.
In a tepid endorsement of the president's plan, Martin Corry, director of federal affairs for the 33-million-member American Association of Retired Persons, said: "We're pleased that Medicare and Medicaid cuts are smaller than those which passed the House and Senate. Even so, this is going to require sacrifice, and no one should be misled by the size of the task ahead."
The judgment among political pundits was that Mr. Clinton's new budget was in large degree an effort to stem GOP accusations of presidential irrelevance; and, more, an effort to capture the votes of that wide middle-mass of the electorate enchanted with the idea of balanced budgets. Opinion polls consistently show that broad swathes of the American public want balanced budgets but don't want cuts in popular programs.
The Republican budgets now in conference -- where the House and Senate must hammer out a common package -- will undoubtably prove both politically difficult to enact and harder still for the public to swallow. Any way it is presented, the Republicans' seven-year path to balance is steep and treacherous.
The Clinton package is a clear effort to open the road toward balancing the budget. It offers those crucial voters in the middle -- ripe pickings for a potential third-party candidate -- their two chief requisites: no cuts in Social Security and no cuts in benefits to the elderly on Medicare.
But that is exactly where the president fell out with congressional Democrats. These Democrats built their first priority and chief strategy around counterpunching the conservatives in Congress. The tough GOP budget proposals offered them the perfect whipping boy. But, as with the North American Free Trade Agreement, which also was strongly opposed by key Democrats, the president has once again gone his own way, once again declaring his direction as "what's good for America," as he put it in his recent budget speech.
For a man accused of failing to lead, of not being able to make the tough choices, Mr. Clinton has consistently defied the conventional wisdom of his own party, as well as the opposition. Now, he says he is in pursuit of the common ground the public so much wants its politicians to establish in order to set the nation on a firm footing for the future.
The Clinton budget does, however, draw a clear line between those who believe that government can work for the public good and those who don't. And in a time when budget choices are burdened by a national debt approaching $5 trillion, that has become a clear but narrow distinction between Democrats, who face little choice but austerity, and Republicans who cringe at the necessity of social policy.
There are partisans on both sides, Republican and Democrat, who have zero tolerance for finding the middle ground and would rather slug it out over principle. That is politics, and has become a formula for stalemate. But if it is re-election those politicians seek, as well as an honest approach to cutting the nation's deficits, then they are going to have to balance their views before they can dream of balancing the nation's budget.
B6 Jeff Shear is a reporter for the National Journal.