IT WAS VINTAGE Bill Clinton. And by that we don't just mean his reinvention of history to suggest that Republicans in Congress made him raise $258 billion in taxes in 1993. We mean his swift recantation once the political explosions started.
To hear the president's version, it was merely a blip of the tongue. "My mother once said I should never give a talk after 7 at night," he told his press conference yesterday. However, Mr. Clinton turned revisionist not once but twice in a period of four days and nights.
The damage-control agenda at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue is to pass this off as just one more pratfall in the three-ring budget circus now going on in Washington. Referencing his assertions that he raised taxes more than he wanted to and more than he should have, Mr. Clinton declared: "I should not have said that."
Yet something more than blip-speak is at issue here. Though it is one more rip in the president's credibility quotient, it also fits in with a "triangulation" strategy to place himself between Republicans and liberal Democrats. And as Congress moves toward showdown on matters vitally affecting every American, Mr. Clinton can ill-afford to have his reliability in question when he is accusing the Republicans of all kinds of legislative monkey business.
The fact is that Mr. Clinton's 1993 tax-increase plan was unveiled before he had any talks with GOP leaders. If his figure was set too high to please liberals in his own party, that is his problem, not a Republican problem.
As the fiscal end game begins, Mr. Clinton hinted broadly that he is wide open to compromise on the number of years it will theoretically take to get rid of chronic federal deficits and balance the budget.
The Republicans have enshrined a seven-year plan, with year 2002 targeted to bring a small surplus. The White House first countered with a more gradual ten-year plan, then cooked up rosier numbers to get it down to nine years. Yesterday, the president disclosed that he could go along with a seven-year schedule, provided it could achieve his programmatic goals, because "no one can predict with any exactitude. . . you can't project what all will happen."
Here the president spoke truth. He was on the mark. The Republicans may want to cut taxes and curtail Medicare growth twice as much as he does, but on long-term objectives there is uneasy agreement. There will be a compromise if both parties find it in their political interest to broker one. There won't if they don't. And whatever emerges will be a piece of economic guesswork subject, as always, to the revisionism of later Congresses and presidents. Bill Clinton surely understands that.