FOR PRESIDENT CLINTON, the timing of his State of the Union address Tuesday night was made in heaven. It comes when his Republican tormentors are divided as never before. They are divided on the flat tax, the debt ceiling, the government shutdown, the shape of the budget and even whether they should negotiate with the White House by telephone or in person. If Mr. Clinton flubs this opportunity, he may never get a better one.
Learning from George Bush, who laid an egg at the start of his re-election year, the White House has avoided a buildup of the speech as the "defining moment" of the Clinton presidency. Yet Mr. Clinton would make a big mistake if he just stands pat. True enough, the Republicans have had to abandon the tactic of trying to use a government shutdown or the threat of default as leverage to force the president to accept their version of a balanced budget in seven years. But while Mr. Clinton has outmaneuvered his opponents recently, the public has a right to expect something more substantive.
So what can he do -- what should he do -- and still deliver his Democrats, when the rollcall sounds? He can give a little on Medicare numbers without surrendering ground on how the system should operate. He can accept a cap on Medicaid entitlements as long as they remain entitlements. And on taxes, he can make a grand offer on reducing capital gains rates (the nub GOP objective) while still resisting huge and irresponsible income tax cuts.
The above suggestions are strictly illustrative. They will be repugnant to Democratic liberals who think Mr. Clinton has already made too many concessions and insufficient to zealous House Republicans who consider compromise an alien concept.
Political operatives in both parties see partisan advantage in no budget agreement. If they prevail, what then? A series of continuing resolutions keeping the government limping along at reduced levels until the current fiscal year ends in October. An impasse on the meritorious GOP effort to bring runaway government entitlements under control. A breakdown in meaningful consideration of a fiscal 1997 budget. A negative judgment in the financial markets on the ability of Washington to manage current operations and long-term debt.
President Clinton on Tuesday night does indeed have a chance to render the first Republican-controlled Congress in 40 years a "do-nothing Congress." But having cast himself as defender of the status quo, he also could wind being taunted as a "do-nothing president." The American public deserves better.