As the White House and congressional Republicans move toward a confrontation that could shut down the government this week, the debate over the GOP plan to balance the federal budget and revamp Medicare is increasingly following the path that derailed President Clinton’s own budget and health care initiatives.
After his victory over George Bush in 1992, Clinton took office buoyed by a widespread belief that the nation needed a fresh assault on entrenched domestic problems. But he proved unable to translate that general sentiment into support for his specific measures on the economy and health care.
Similarly, the Republicans carried the 1994 election largely on the strength of a powerful anti-government attitude that still radiates through all public opinion polls. But, like Clinton, they appear increasingly unable to convert that broad sentiment into endorsement of their seven-year plan to balance the federal budget and reduce the size and scope of the federal government.
Just as Clinton appeared to overestimate the enthusiasm of Americans for new government initiatives with his health care and economic plans, an avalanche of recent polls suggests that Republicans may now be exceeding the public tolerance for reductions in the growth of government programs, particularly the Medicare program for the elderly.
In a new Gallup/CNN/USA Today poll released Friday, nearly three out of five respondents said the Republican budget cuts go too far. And in a reversal of the substantial advantage in polls the GOP enjoyed leading into the 1994 vote, several recent surveys have found that more respondents say they intend to vote for Democrats rather than Republicans in next year’s congressional elections.
“We are pushing the envelope in terms of what folks wanted us to do,” acknowledged Bill McInturff, a Republican political pollster.
In some respects, the parallel erosion of public support for both of Clinton’s major initiatives and the GOP budget plan shows that in an era when Americans generally distrust politicians, it is easier to generate opposition than support for their designs.
But some analysts believe that Clinton and now the Republicans opened themselves to these attacks with the same mistake: advancing a polarizing agenda at a time when the contradictions in public opinion about government demanded a more incremental and centrist strategy.
With their initiatives, both Clinton and the Republicans drafted sweeping, even purist, plans that aimed to maximize support among their ideological allies. Both rejected the course of pursuing bipartisan alliances that would have required them to moderate their ambitions by accommodating views from the other side.
Clinton’s 1993 budget plan--which raised taxes and reduced spending in some areas while pouring new funds into selected education, training and other programs--attracted not a single Republican vote in Congress. And just one congressional Republican endorsed his proposal to expand government oversight of the health care system and require most employers to insure their workers.
Similarly, the GOP plan to cut taxes by $245 billion and balance the budget with large reductions in the growth of Medicare, Medicaid and other programs passed the Senate last month without a single Democratic vote and cleared the House with support from just four Democrats.
Now Republicans appear to be paying the same price Clinton did for this narrowly partisan strategy. Just as the center of opinion turned against Clinton’s plans, polls now suggest that many swing voters view the GOP budget blueprint as change more extreme than they voted for.
“In 1993 and 1994, the voters perceived that Democrats were overreaching,” said Democratic pollster Peter Hart. “In 1995, they perceive that Republicans are overreaching.”
Once the public loses confidence in a major political initiative, the process tends to feed on itself. When Clinton announced his health care proposal to wide public acclaim in September, 1993, even senior Republicans signaled a desire to compromise. But as attacks from small business and health insurance groups dented support for the plan, Republicans intensified their own criticism, and in the process further deepened public anxiety about the proposal.
Likewise, as public enthusiasm for the GOP budget plan has slackened, White House resistance has hardened. In the past several days, Clinton has indicated that he will reject the overall budget-balancing plan moving to completion in a House-Senate conference. He’s also pledged to veto the GOP-drafted stopgap spending measure that would allow the government to continue operating past midnight Monday but simultaneously impose policy changes he finds unacceptable.
Said senior presidential adviser George Stephanopoulos: “We have the leverage now--because of the Constitution [which gives the President the veto] and the unpopularity of their plan--to hold out for a new deal.”
The erosion of support for the Republican budget plan so closely replicates the steady decline in public enthusiasm for both the Clinton budget and health care initiatives that it could be called the flip side of the same phenomenon: a deep public ambivalence about the proper role of government in society.
“There is clearly a stalemate here,” said Democratic political pollster Mark Mellman. “There is a fundamental lack of consensus in the country about what we want government to do.”
In a recent Los Angeles Times Poll, respondents expressed pointed hostility toward the federal government and broad philosophical support for the Republican theme of limiting it. But surveys also show intense public resistance to reducing spending on many popular programs--particularly Medicare and education--and a lingering expectation that government will play a role in confronting intractable social problems.
During his first two years, Clinton foundered against one side of these paradoxical attitudes. As even some around him now acknowledge, in both his budget and health care plans, Clinton exceeded the public’s willingness to expand the reach and power of the federal government.
In each instance, Clinton’s goals were broadly popular: reducing the deficit and jump-starting the economy in the first case, ensuring universal access to health care in the second. But support eroded as attention shifted to his plans to enlarge government as the means to implement those goals.
Like Clinton earlier, Republicans today can claim broad public agreement with their goals and point to support for many individual elements of their budget-balancing plan. But their boats are splintering against the other rock of the paradox that sank Clinton: Support for the overall GOP package has dwindled as Democrats have relentlessly focused the debate on reductions in the growth of spending on programs the public supports, particularly Medicare.
In two recent polls, respondents, by a roughly 2-to-1 margin, said Clinton should veto the Republican budget. Only about one in four backed the GOP plan to reduce the rate of growth in the Medicare program by $270 billion over the next seven years, though support can rise to about 40%, depending on how the question is phrased, says Harvard University’s Robert Blendon, an expert on public opinion and health care.
But even at the upper end of that range, public support for the Republican Medicare plan only equals the low point of public backing for Clinton’s health care initiative. Other distressing numbers for Republicans include a declining approval rating for Congress as a whole, a widening lead for Clinton in 1996 ballot tests against GOP front-runner Bob Dole and skyrocketing disapproval of House Speaker Newt Gingrich, the combative embodiment of the conservative revolution.
Though some Republicans privately admit to anxiety over these trends, the prevailing attitude in GOP ranks is that public opinion will turn around if they push through their plan.
“The predominant view is the biggest risk we face is stopping halfway--not carrying all the way through,” said Chuck Greener, communication director for the Republican National Committee.
Other Republicans hedge their bets by noting that Clinton will have to sign any final resolution of the budget clash, and they expect his imprimatur will deflect any Democratic attacks on it in 1996. But it remains possible that no final budget deal will be reached: White House aides now talk openly of relying on stopgap measures to fund the government straight through the 1996 vote. And even an agreement between Clinton and the GOP “wouldn’t prohibit congressional Democrats from running against the plan,” notes one senior Democratic aide on Capitol Hill.
The rising doubts about the GOP budget plan are now boosting the Democrats, just as antipathy toward Clinton’s agenda fueled the Republican breakthrough in 1994. But even Democratic pollsters acknowledge that doesn’t imply renewed enthusiasm for their party. Several recent polls show that respondents still trust Republicans more than Democrats to handle many of the nation’s most important problems--even though they want Clinton to veto the centerpiece of the GOP agenda.
These conflicting sentiments illuminate the larger reality that neither party has been able to lock away sustained support from the center of the electorate for its vision of government’s role in society. And that failure promises more turbulence ahead in a political environment where repudiation is now the most powerful force.