The Concord Coalition has been trying to convince President Clinton and his advisers to recognize that "a real plan for deficit reduction is both economically necessary and politically feasible." The coalition wants to reverse the trends of the recent past and, ultimately, to fashion a balanced federal budget, a higher savings rate, and more investment in productive enterprise. It wants to effect great changes in the way the economy is run because its founders believe the United States is headed on a disastrous fiscal course. Last week the coalition was set back.

It is difficult to write yet again about the national debt. Few people in the federal government are serious about change, and too many middle-class voters are dependent upon federal largesse. It's all old-hat, the result of a decade and a half of huge deficits, and so far the country hasn't shriveled up. Why worry?

Peter Peterson, one of the founders of the coalition, argues persuasively in his recent book "Facing Up," that the nation's fiscal course is unwise, and there have been reasons to hope that his views were gaining strength. One of Peterson's major points is that middle-class "entitlements" must be pared, cuts that will affect not just the rich but a broad swath of the general population. His numbers are unarguable.

Last Monday, Marjory Margolies-Mezvinsky, a freshman Democrat in Congress from the well-to-do Main Line west of Philadelphia, held a day-long conference on cutting the federal deficit by curbing automatic benefit programs such as Social Security, Medicare, and government pensions. Margolies-Mezvinsky, you may remember, won a promise from Clinton back in August to attend the entitlements conference in return for her vote for his budget.

So on Monday the President came to Bryn Mawr College to make good on his bargain, but his comments cast doubts on his commitment to cut the deficit. "Let us not make our middle-class squeeze problem worse than it is already," he said, uninspiringly. "It is becoming very difficult for working people to sustain a middle-class way of life."

Of course it is, as long as every administration runs up four-year trillion-dollar deficits and does not bring revenues into line with "entitlements." Clinton used the conference to pitch his health care plan as the way to rein in costs, but that argument, at this point, is unconvincing because little is known about health care revenues and expenses.

The Bryn Mawr conference was an opportunity to make the middle classes think about their responsibility, and Clinton coddled them. For the longer term, this was a strategic setback for the bond market.

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