PRESIDENT CLINTON HAS FLUMMOXED the Republicans again. Believing Clinton was ready to deal in good faith this year on spending and taxes, GOP congressional leaders made a magnanimous display of bipartisanship: They agreed to use Clinton's budget as the working document from which a compromise would be fashioned. The president appeared grateful. Then within weeks, the White House accused Republicans of failing to produce a budget of their own. Clinton encouraged Senate majority leader Trent Lott, in their frequent chats, to propose a commission to cut the consumer price index (CPI) as a catalyst for a budget deal. But when House liberals, led by Richard Gephardt, complained, Clinton sheepishly backed away from the commission. He abandoned principle to protect his base. In response to Clinton's retreat, House speaker Newt Gingrich proposed to drop tax cuts, a top priority for most congressional Republicans, from the budget talks. Gingrich abandoned principle and divided his base.

As a performance artist, Clinton is dazzling to watch. He uses Republicans as a foil. He's the Roadrunner, they're Wile E. Coyote. But to what end is the president performing? He desperately wants to adjust the CPI, agree on a balanced budget, and move toward fixing Social Security and Medicare. In a conservative era, that's the best a moderate-to-liberal Democrat can hope for as a historic achievement. Yet he won't take the tiniest step to make this happen. The CPI commission would only have been a commission, after all. Clinton would have been free to reject its findings, arguing, say, that the Bureau of Labor Statistics is better equipped to calculate the CPI.

So why won't Clinton lead? It's one thing to seek what you can't get, as Gingrich did in 1995 and 1996. But Clinton won't seek what he can get (and wants). Dick Morris, still in regular contact with the White House, says the president's "herding instinct" makes him extraordinarily timid. He feels " vulnerable" because he's under attack by the media and Republicans on the fund-raising scandal. His instinct is "to get with other Democratic cattle and feel the warmth of their bodies," Morris says. Rather than anger Gephardt on the CPI, Clinton angered Lott. Morris believes this was the wrong move. " He zigged when he should have zagged." Instead, Morris advises, Clinton should shed his Democratic allies, step to the political middle, and boldly deal on the budget. That would make him "irreplaceable," says Morris. Of course, Morris has always thought a real budget deal with Republicans is the best thing for Clinton, politically and otherwise.

Maybe Clinton has in mind a two-step approach to the budget, sticking with Democrats during the scandal furor and reaching a deal with Republicans later. GOP pollster Frank Luntz, for one, thinks this makes sense from Clinton's standpoint. If he leads now and locks up a budget deal, the biggest domestic issue will be off the media agenda. That will leave only the scandals as the big story in Washington. So it may be to Clinton's advantage to drag out the budget process as long as possible. And it may be even better for him if he can turn the budget fight into a constitutional struggle, with the threat of another government shutdown looming. The press would lap it up.

I have a different explanation. It doesn't matter that Clinton won't have to face the voters again. It doesn't matter that his ambition, as he's made clear in discussions with Morris and others, is to register historic accomplishments in his second term. And it doesn't matter that Clinton has tossed out most of his liberal aides and filled the top White House jobs with New Democrats. At his core, Clinton remains a tactical politician. He doesn't do long-term strategy.

His handling of every issue depends on how much pressure he gets and where it comes from. He's a politician of the moment. Even before the fund-raising scandal metastasized, he planned (or at least hoped) to back into a CPI agreement and budget deal. Step forward and lead toward those? That would be suicidal, aides said. When the slightest pressure came along -- from Gephardt on the CPI -- he was thrown off his plan. And last week, Clinton suggested a new formulation for a budget consensus: "I want a balanced-budget plan that can win the support of majorities in both parties in both houses of Congress." This means Clinton isn't ready to embrace a serious budget favored by a center-right coalition in Congress (all Republicans, a few Democrats). He wants more than a handful of liberal Democrats on board. This could happen, but only if the "balanced budget" were a phony one.

No doubt the White House enjoys watching congressional Republicans in agony. Clinton's tactical skill is especially effective in manipulating Gingrich, who once confessed he "melts" around the president. For now anyway, Gingrich's political instincts seem to have left him. He had House GOP whip Tom DeLay try out the idea of seeking a budget with no tax cuts. He'd get tax relief later. (Sure.) Practically no Republicans liked the idea -- not Lott, not House majority leader Dick Armey, not chairman Bill Archer of the House Ways and Means Committee, not John Kasich of the House Budget Committee, not Bill Paxon, who chairs House Republican leadership meetings. Kasich, once a Gingrich acolyte, insists a Republican party "that doesn't favor tax cuts is a Republican party in danger of losing its soul." The trial balloon having been shot down, Gingrich called for a budget without tax cuts anyway. And Clinton leapt on the proposal "as a new and hopeful" sign and convened a meeting at the White House.

In the end, Clinton's tactical brilliance is a hindrance. It may keep him alive politically, but he's merely running in place. He's close to alienating his one indispensable ally in budget talks, Lott. The Senate leader made a single formal proposal, a tame one at that, and Clinton strained his relationship with Lott by rejecting it. Most of the telephone calls now are initiated not by Lott but by Clinton or his chief of staff, Erskine Bowles. Lott has concluded the White House professes to want a balanced budget but won't do anything to get one. He's ready to stop talking to Clinton and negotiate instead with Democratic moderates in Congress.

In the House, Republicans are too divided to engage in meaningful budget talks with the White House. Mike McCurry, Clinton's press secretary, concedes it's harder to get a budget deal "with a party divided than a party united." Yet the president keeps taking the easy path of outwitting, irritating, and dividing Republicans. This won't get him what he wants most.

Executive editor Fred Barnes hosts "What's the Story?," a syndicated radio show on the media.

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