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Clinton Leaves Field To the Republicans

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REMEMBER how the president told us a few months back that he now was engaged in a Great Debate with the Republicans? Maybe it's time to evaluate that debate. As of now I would say that the Republicans keep scoring points simply because the issue -- how best to run the government -- is one they continue to address effectively while Mr. Clinton and the Democrats haven't been at all persuasive.

The reason? Well, it is clear that the federal budget proposal -- how money should be spent and what programs to keep -- is central to this whole debate. But while both the House and Senate Republicans have come up with plans to put our financial house in order, the president provides little except criticism -- and a veto threat. He tells the Democratic leaders in Congress that ''this is not the season'' for him to come up with an alternative proposal -- that it will have to come later after the Republicans work out their differences and embrace a single plan.

In the meantime, while indicating he is working on a plan and that he thinks balancing the budget within 10 years will be a part of his proposal, the president's strategy seems to be ''Let the Republicans stew in their own juices.'' Up to now that approach has not been enough to win the Great Debate.

True, the Republicans in their adventures in budgetry aren't wallowing in success. By getting out in front they have also got out in the open. The president and the Democrats charge that the GOP plans are ''cruel'' in their cuts of social programs. And a public that had apparently sent a ''less federal government'' message to Washington in last November's elections now seems to have had some second thoughts. A new poll shows that some 55 percent of Americans have become unhappy with the Republicans' budget plans.

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