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Balanced-Budget Deal May Tip Scales Toward a New Kind of Washington

By Ronald Brownstein
The Los Angeles Times, May 12, 1997

It's not the end of history, not even the end of politics. Lots of tough haggling remains over the details, and critics will have plenty of opportunities to derail the entire train as it chugs through Congress.

But the odds now lean toward Congress passing and President Clinton signing a five-year plan to balance the federal budget. And if a deal does go through, it will do more than reorder the government's books; it could also remake the political landscape to an extent that few in either party fully recognize.

Since Ronald Reagan's first budget, the battle over the federal deficit has, to an extraordinary extent, defined the public identities of the parties. Almost without interruption, the two sides have spent the past 15 years clawing over taxes, spending and the size of government. This agreement doesn't totally resolve those arguments. But if it becomes law, it will greatly muffle them and dull their political impact.

"If this wraps up the way I think it will, you can mark it as the end of an era," said Don Fierce, the former director of strategic planning at the Republican National Committee. "Fiscal matters will become less important because most of the problems are taken care of."

In a broad ideological sense, the accord enshrines the Republican vision of limited government; unlike the 1990 and 1993 budget deals, this agreement seeks to eliminate the red ink while cutting, not raising, taxes.

But it also establishes a truce line in the debate over government's size that leaves much more of Washington standing than conservatives had hoped. And the prospect that the budget will finally approach balance under a Democratic president provides the party an opportunity to slip the big-spending collar it has labored under for decades. If the party of activist government can also stand for fiscal responsibility, the combination can be electric--as Tony Blair just demonstrated in Britain.

"It takes the steam out of the age-old Republican argument that Democrats are for big government and nothing else," said Bruce Reed, the chief domestic policy advisor in the White House.

In the near term, the deal promises convergence between the parties and divergence within them. Significant elements on both sides are denouncing the agreement: Liberals think it cuts taxes and spending too much, conservatives too little. Those arguments are likely to echo through the presidential primaries in three years; potential contenders like Democrat Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) and Republicans Jack Kemp and Steve Forbes are already rehearsing them.

In 2000, voters are unlikely to remember the specifics of this package. But unless an economic downturn creates an audience for new approaches, candidates on the left or right may have an equally hard time building a case for violating this consensus--either by spending significantly more (as Gephardt might urge) or cutting more taxes (as Kemp and Forbes desire).

"People will challenge it now, but they will not be successful because [this agreement] reaches the consensus the American people have reached: Which is that government must exist, but let's keep it limited; let's reduce it, but let's ensure it survives," said GOP pollster Frank Luntz.

Through the 1990s the GOP has increasingly narrowed its message to the single priority of shrinking government. To Luntz and Fierce, the deal creates an imperative to find a broader agenda that addresses voter anxieties about the strains on family life and America's cultural cohesion. That viewpoint will clash with conservatives who insist that Republicans should now simply argue for reducing government even more. "We can now explicitly trade off . . . further reductions in government with further tax cuts," said conservative strategist Grover Norquist.

Maybe. But balancing the budget was the means by which conservatives have marketed their real priority of shrinking government. And even with that appealing packaging, they still had enormous difficulty making the sale--as the 1995 budget battle demonstrated. If the right can't portray ideas like eliminating the Education Department as a difficult but necessary step to reach balance, their prospects become that much more remote.

That doesn't mean the fiscal debates between the parties are over. But for the next few years they are likely to occur at the margin, as Republicans look to incrementally enlarge tax cuts (or perhaps begin paying down the national debt) and Democrats look to marginally increase funding for priorities slighted in this deal (like Clinton's push for more empowerment zones). Through the life of this agreement, it's unlikely that we'll again see an apocalyptic budget showdown that vividly defines the parties--as the struggles in 1990, 1993 and 1995 all did.

In that way, this agreement over time may reduce the focus on Washington itself. Conflict is the magnet that makes Americans tune into the capital; when it recedes so does their attention. Arguments over the courts and a flat tax and the environment will all outlive a budget deal. But none of these may be compelling enough to move Washington out of the attic of the American mind.

That kind of no news is good news for incumbents--which may be why so many congressional Democrats and Republicans with presidential ambitions are equally unhappy about the agreement. Absent a sharp economic downturn--which this deal makes less likely--it wouldn't be surprising to see reelection rates for congressional incumbents, which have sagged since 1990, turn back up. This entente also improves Al Gore's odds of succeeding Clinton.

That dynamic raises perhaps the most intriguing question of all--whether the deal will encourage the Democratic White House and Republican congressional majority to take further steps that might mutually reinforce their positions. The biggest item on that list is an agreement to restrain the long-term growth in entitlements like Medicare. Pursuing such a deal would heighten strains inside each party. But a bipartisan commitment to stabilize entitlements could also increase the chances that the parties now holding the keys at each end of Pennsylvania Avenue continue to hold them into the next century.

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