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Mirage: Why Neither Democrats nor Republicans can Balance the Budget, End the Deficit and Satisfy the Public.

by George Hager and Eric Pianin Times Books, $25

WHAT AN EPIC: READ IT AND weep, Leo Tolstoy. Millions of lives and billions of dollars in the balance. The nation's leaders eyeball to eyeball. The entire government held hostage.

The debate over balancing the budget has made an election look like a walk in the park. Year after year, our leaders fight over what combination of cuts in spending on government programs, and taxes to pay for those programs, can keep the country from falling deeper into debt. And while eight deficit-cutting plans over 15 years have helped, the unhappy fact is that the first 15 cents of every federal budget dollar goes to interest on the national debt.

This year the drive to pass a constitutional amendment to balance the budget failed again, even as Cassandras warn that if this madness of deficit spending continues, our children and grandchildren will be selling matches, or maybe used computers, on street corners. But change is in the air. The Republican ideologues' budget alarms got our attention. Unfortunately, their hubris in shutting down the government frightened us. This has made the voter a more formidable player in budget talks. The feeling grows that despite the pessimism and continuing jockeying, a plan for balancing the budget will be set this year.

So, what's the big deal anyway? Why can't our leaders poke under the hood, as Ross Perot has said, and fix this budget business? Because, as authors George Hager and Eric Pianin put it, this isn't just a matter of tinkering with numbers. It is but a confrontation which has been transformed by Republican ideologues into "a grueling battle to the political death" over national goals and the role government should play in our lives.

And we the people egg on the combatants. We want it both ways--cut the budget, eliminate the deficits, but don't lay a hand on my job or benefit checks or favorite government services. We also back the special interests, making it harder to have a debate based on good sense and compromise.

In Mirage, Hager and Pianin, reporters for Congressional Quarterly and The Washington Post respectively, dramatize how this combination of ideological zeal and the voters' mixed message has shaped the last three presidents' varying approaches to mounting deficits. Ronald Reagan did a full pirouette. Before he became president he had made balancing the budget the Holy Grail of politics. But once in the White House, Reagan did not have "the stomach" for deep cuts in federal programs. He also said that he would not balance the budget "on the backs of the American people" by raising taxes, and then did it "over and over again"--signing "the largest tax increase in modern U.S. history,' Yet, as the authors note, he also left us with some of "the largest [budget] deficits in peacetime history"

Hager and Pianin feel that Reagan made balancing the budget impossible. "By continually reassuring voters that there were easy fixes [for the budget], he cheapened the discourse and undermined support for politicianswhis own budget director among them--who knew how painful the real cuts had to be and desperately needed public support to get them enacted."

George "No New Taxes" Bush was finally forced to raise them in his 1990 budget.. The authors call this "the biggest and best such package since the deficit went out of control in the mid 1970s" But Bush virtually disowned it, groveling to GOP conservatives who never forgave him.

Bill Clinton came out smelling like a rose after a near humiliation in his 1993 tax and spending fight. The package worked and, with a boost from the economy, the deficit fell for the next three years.

But then came the grand-daddy of all budget confrontations.

The GOP hard-liners forced everyone to face the cost of entitlements and proposed an enormous cut in projected spending on Medicare--270 billion dollars over seven years. They tried to bluff Clinton by sending him a continuing resolution to keep government operating that included a higher Medicare premium. Clinton refused to sign it, and the government was shut down.

What the zealots did not understand is that Americans are nervous about leaders who get too far out in front of them--especially a bunch of green GOP legislators. They scared the daylights out of many of us. With one fateful move, the House Republicans had lost a lot of the public's confidence in them.

Hager and Pianin's portrait has enough inside stuff to keep political junkies happy. Take Bob Doles wisecracks during the Bush budget talks. As Treasury Secretary Nicholas Brady, Budget Director Dick Darman, and abrasive Chief of Staff John Sununu would enter the room, Dole would mutter under his breath, "Here come Nick, Dick--and Prick,'

Mirage shows that throughout history we have endowed a balanced budget with near spiritual significance. It symbolizes "national harmony, Calvinist thrift, and the avoidance of corruption,'

But virtue is not necessarily its own reward. Indeed, the authors could have underscored even more strongly the fact that balancing the budget does not necessarily lead to a smooth-running economy. Conversely, we have had numerous years in the last two decades when the deficit was high, but the economy kept humming along.

The authors also could have been bolder in exploring ways to ease tensions over Medicare and Social Security rather than just carrying the torch for the baby boomers. They picture the boomers as saddled with the burden of supporting programs that the authors feel have "calcified into the most unshakable features of the American social compact,'

But does budget-balancing have to be high noon between boomers and the AARP battalions? As the health insurance debate heats up again, the medicine might go down more easily by fitting Medicare into a national health plan.

And the boomers should not take for granted what Medicare and Social Security have done to ease caring for aging mothers and fathers--without breaking the bank at home.

Mirage's message to Perot and pals is that balancing the budget is not just a simplistic accounting problem the political cowards and lunkheads in Washington refuse to face.

We the voters are also responsible. We need to wrestle with entitlements and recognize that sacrifice is also part of our system of government.

Mirage is also a story about Washingtons incestuousness. We in Washington say that most Americans take the political brawls and overblown rhetoric with a grain of salt. `Everyone knows it's just a game.' And the press often takes a `Haven't-we-been-here-before' tone when it could help cut through the rhetoric with truth boxes similar to those used to analyze the claims in political ads.

The fact is, America does watch the debate, and that makes the politicians squirm.

Mirage is one more study of how Washington really works. While there may be more detail than you want for bedside reading, sound reporting and lucid writing keep it readable. Deep down we know that what we don't know about the budget deficit could hurt us and our children. Washington knows it too. This time, give the politicians and the press credit for dragging themselves, and us, toward a solution.

LEWIS WOLFSON is a professor of communication at American University, and director of the Dialogue with the Press Program.
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Author:Wolfson, Lewis
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:May 1, 1997
Words:1211
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