Washington. -- I was among the surprised when President Clinton offered a new federal budget to replace the one he offered four months ago. Certainly over the years he has demonstrated a talent for changing donkeys in midstream without getting his feet wet -- he is, after all, a professional politician facing re-election -- but now it looks as if he's going to swim for it all by himself.
I expect he'll try more than a few strokes to get across the river of 1996. I'm not positive what this one now is, though. Maybe he's just splashing around to keep his head above water.
I had thought that he was making a mistake these past six months by not challenging the Republicans' poll-based and poll-distorting assertion that their ideological thrusts at the legitimacy of government itself reflected the considered will of the American people. "Surrendering to people who take no prisoners," wrote I. But who knew he was thinking about defecting?
Or, perhaps by separating himself from his party, the president plans to run for re-election, in effect, as a independent of some sort, the first third-party president.
He is a complicated fellow. The usual raps on him are that he does not stand for anything, that he can't say "No," that he's a prisoner of the last person he talks to, that he has no guts. Well, he believes in the future of Bill Clinton. He certainly had the guts to ignore most everyone around him telling him he was crazy to switch sides now. He had the guts to risk the chance that he will be challenged by a liberal either in Democratic primary elections or in the general election of November 1996.
You do not have to be a devoted admirer of Democrats in Congress to understand their fear and loathing at being left out in the cold while their former "leader" sucks up the Republicans and their presumed power in the opinion polls of the day. From the perspective of, say, House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt, President Clinton has not only hung his congressional allies out to dry, he has also stood by while Republicans went about the business of trying to dismantle Lyndon Johnson's Great Society and of nibbling at Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal.
Now, in that view, the Democratic president is also willing to let his party go down in pieces, too. He is writing it off -- and a lot of his personal history with it -- as a vestige of times and elections past.
There is some rough justice, perhaps too rough, in Mr. Clinton's turning on his own congressmen and women, because in a very real way it was the ineptitude and arrogance of Democratic congressional leaders that brought down the Clinton presidency the 1994 midterm elections. He made a mistake in selling out to them after his anti-Washington 1992 victory, and now he is selling them out. It's not a nice business.
The president may be making a big mistake -- and he's certainly smart enough to know that. (Which is another way of saying that, despite conventional wisdom, the man has the guts of a burglar.) He makes too much of the negativity of being negative. There are many things this pretty mean crowd of Republicans are trying to do -- beginning and ending with transferring more money and more power to the Americans George Bush liked to refer to as "the investing classes" -- that any moderate democratic (small "d") politician should stand up to and say, "No! Never! Not in my country."
But as Bill Clinton has again emphasized, his constituency is not defined by ideas, economics or class, or race and religion. His real constituency is the polls. He believes that is what democracy is -- not traditions or parties or ideas, but numbers. His bow to the polls now means that he could soon enough lose two-thirds of the power vested in him by law and history.
The president of the United States has the power of three democratic monarchs; he is head of state, head of government and head of party. If his party-leaving gambit does not work out, Mr. Clinton will be head of state, the living symbol of all the United States. But the Republicans will lead the government and the Democrats will be alien to him -- at best, congressional Democrats can never again give him any trust at all.
Politically, I suspect, Bill Clinton's declaration of independence will be viewed as an important milestone in America's trip away from the old two-party system.
Richard Reeves is a syndicated columnist.