AS POLITICAL THEATER, President Clinton's State of the Union address left the stage strewn with Republican dead and wounded -- their dreams of a balanced budget in tatters and conservative issues they thought they owned brazenly purloined by the orator from Arkansas. An added bonanza for the Democrats was the spectacle of a confrontational Bob Dole, heretofore the chief GOP conciliator, being rendered irrelevant by Gingrich revolutionaries suddenly eager to do a deal.
Before tomorrow's deadline on a third partial shutdown of government, Speaker Newt Gingrich promised passage of a one-month spending bill that he thinks the president will sign. Republicans are well aware they took a public relations licking on the first two shutdowns. They have no appetite for a third and are in retreat on threats to risk default on the national debt.
Mr. Gingrich now concedes he has no hope for a balanced budget on his terms so long as Mr. Clinton is president. He pronounced himself ready to accept a mere "down-payment" -- spending cuts of only $100 billion compared to the $600 billion to $700 billion needed to balance the budget, a $29 billion child-credit tax cut compared to the $245 billion on the GOP agenda and finally, if the president is willing, a modest economic growth package (capital gains tax cuts?) to ward off recession.
Just what the White House might accept was left to conjecture. The speaker made little attempt to minimize the defeat of laudable Republican plans for downsizing government and reining in costly entitlement programs after winning control of Congress 14 months ago.
With both Congress and the White House up for grabs in November, voters may be asked to decide in November what Washington politicians cannot decide in January. But Mr. Clinton, proclaiming that "the era of big government is over," made it clear in his Tuesday night speech that he will try to capture GOP ideological turf. Senator Dole and Mr. Gingrich were left to protest that the president might talk conservative lingo but is a status quo liberal. Clearly, their party needs something less defensive and more creative than that.
To be sure, presidential advantage is built into the State of the Union format. Mr. Clinton had the live audience, the pageantry; Mr. Dole only an empty TV studio and precious little time to prepare a response. But formats aren't everything. Mr. Clinton, drawing a 70 percent favorable response in quickie opinion polls, made the most of his opportunity. Senator Dole, who did not, may have hurt his bid for the GOP nomination.