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On the Budget Battle, Reality and 'Political Reality' Are Two Different Things

WHY is it that we no longer are hearing or seeing a crowing Newt Gingrich? It's because his efforts to bring an end to the New Deal have failed. Or so it appears - and appearances have become the political realities, at least for the present. Bill Clinton has won the Great Debate, the Speaker has lost again. Or it appears that way.

It was at a Monitor breakfast in late March that one of Mr. Gingrich's chief lieutenants in the budget battle, John Kasich, delivered what he described as a mea culpa for the GOP confrontational tactics that have made the Republicans the apparent losers in the battle over the budget, and hence, in their efforts to reverse the social changes brought about by the New Deal.

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As we all know, the government-shutdown tactics used by Gingrich and Co. - to force the president into signing the budget legislation - just didn't work. They thought Mr. Clinton would look at the widespread 1994 public support for Republican members of Congress and conclude that he would be hurt politically if he vetoed the GOP-shaped budget.

But they didn't count on a politically clever Clinton turning the confrontation and government shutdown into a presidential victory. Once Clinton started to lambast the Republicans with the assertion that their budget, if enacted, could take away a lot of social programs from the old, the disadvantaged, and the needy, the battle was over. The political triumph belonged to Clinton. His public approval began to soar.

Mr. Kasich, the House Budget Committee chairman, conceded that the president now had the Republicans in Congress on the defensive. In trying to explain how he and his cohorts had been able to pull defeat out of the jaws of victory, he said: "We defined success wrong. We defined success as forcing Bill Clinton to sign a bill. We were naive in thinking he would sign it. If we had only defined it as getting our job done in Congress we would have been better off."

Actually, there is a difference between "realities" and "political realities" when we analyze the GOP "revolution" and its present status. Elizabeth Drew, who always brings a detached and nonpartisan view to her scrutinies of the Washington political scene, underscores this difference when she writes in her new book, "Showdown, the Struggle between the Gingrich Congress and the Clinton White House," that "Gingrich's setting the terms of the debate in 1995 was a big, even historic, achievement."

So, in reality, Newt should be in a position to brag. With the Republicans in the House solidly behind him, he was able to pass bill after bill of the Contract With America. And a Senate majority under the leadership of Bob Dole joined in this effort to turn back the clock on what Franklin D. Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson had put into place.

Indeed, Clinton at first looked as if he would capitulate. He thought the public was behind the Republican revolution. His low standing in the polls told him that. He even agreed to balance the budget in seven years.

But the Republicans went for a total victory - and fell flat on their faces, from a political point of view. Canny political adviser Richard Morris suggested to Clinton that he play the "compassion card." The president had already thought of that and was ready to go. Soon he had a lot of Americans believing the Republicans were about to take their entitlements and their livelihood away from them. Clinton emerged as the champion of just about everybody - because just about everybody would be hurt by cuts in Medicare.

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Funny thing, too: Clinton demagogued the Medicare issue quite a bit. He knows that Medicare must be fixed and the Republicans were trying to fix it. But Clinton charged the Republicans with "cutting" Medicare when the fact was that the GOP plan was to increase the amounts provided for Medicare but not as much as the president had in mind.

Anyway, the truth is that Gingrich and Co. lost the political and crucial part of the budget battle by overreaching.

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