Battle over the Budget
Clinton's "triangulation" strategy was an attempt to take control of the budget from the Republicans in Congress. His own balanced budget plan claimed to balance the federal budget without cutting Medicare and Medicaid. "You know whether or not to balance the budget, we can’t win that fight," says Clinton's Press Secretary Dee Dee Myers. "Once you accept that we’re going to balance the budget now let’s have a fight about what we’re going to cut and what we’re going to protect. That’s a fight we can win."
Narrator: Gingrich would not yield to Clinton’s charms. Unless the president agreed to huge cuts in Medicare and Medicaid, Congress would refuse to appropriate money for the federal government, shutting it down.
Tony Blankley, Republican Strategist: The one thing that the House of Representatives has is the power of the purse. We can deny money. It is the only thing that the House of Representatives alone can do, can refuse to vote an appropriation. So inevitably, whatever the fight was going to be, it was going to come down to us denying the White House money.
Narrator: Clinton seemed caught between two toxic political choices: if he opposed Gingrich’s balanced budget plan, he would be portrayed as a defender of big government deficits; if he gave in, he would effectively cede control of the government to Gingrich and the Republicans.
There was a third option. Dick Morris had been polling the Republicans’ proposed budget cuts and believed he had found an opening.
Dick Morris, Political Consultant: I did a poll for Clinton where I tested each of those cuts and its impact, and I said to him, 'Do you want the four hour briefing or the one word briefing?' And he said start with the one word, I said ‘Medicare.’ I said you, none of the other cuts are nearly as important as the cut they’re proposing in Medicare.
Narrator: The public supported a balanced budget, Morris argued, but not at the expense of their most cherished federal program.
Dick Morris, Political Consultant: I said that’s what’s important is that you take away from the Republicans the balanced budget issue. If you can show how you can balance the budget without cutting Medicare but by cutting everything else then you can call their bluff, and then all of a sudden it becomes a question of what do we cut not do we cut.
Narrator: Morris called his strategy: “triangulation.” Clinton seized on it as a way to regain the initiative from the Republicans. In June, over the strong objections of liberals on is staff, he announced his own balanced budget plan, protecting Medicare and Medicaid.
Bill Clinton (archival): There is an alternative, a way to balance this budget. It’s not that we shouldn’t balance the budget. We should balance the budget. I strongly support it. We ought to do that. I believe we're going to do that. But we don’t have to do it in a draconian way that hurts the American people.
Dee Dee Myers, Press Secretary: You know whether or not to balance the budget, we can’t win that fight. We’re going to lose, but once you accept that we’re going to balance the budget now let’s have a fight about what we’re going to cut and what we’re going to protect. That’s a fight we can win.
My American Experience
Who is your favorite 20th-century American president? Was it FDR? Reagan? Clinton? Or one of the other 14 men who helped usher the United Sates through the 1900s? Who do you think was the most influential?