WASHINGTON — SAY THIS much for the budget agreement: For the first time in years, it uses real numbers. The White House finally came clean (well, almost) as to how deeply we are in the hole. It dumped its old sweetheart, Rosy Scenario, at least for now.
As a result, we know the deficit in this fiscal year will hit $400 billion if you take out the surpluses from Social Security and other trust funds. Budget Director Richard Darman low-balled it at $100 billion only nine months ago, so that's progress of a sort.
The bad news is the agreement makes only a tiny dent in this ocean of red ink. It cuts less than the $63 billion in Darman's 11th-hour upward revision. But at least they're finally starting to treat us like adults.
The other bad news is there's nothing in the accord to return fairness to a tax system skewed over the last 10 years to soak the middle class and reward the wealthy.
Since our last two presidents have constantly assured us we can have whatever they think might be good for us (Star Wars, Stealth bombers, a war with Saddam Hussein) without paying for it, maybe that's as good as we can hope for on the first try. George Bush had his head in concrete against any hike in tax rates for the over-$100,000-a-year crowd. It was all Democrats could manage just to derail the capital gains break he wanted to give them as frosting.
At least the spending cuts and sales tax increases the summiteers swallowed are real, not smoke and mirrors. They promise somewhat lower deficits in future years, assuming enough votes can be herded to pass the package and it sticks for a few years -- two sizable "ifs."
It will take much more, however, to get this country back on track, equipped to compete in a post-Cold War world. We have to get cracking on an energy policy, slashing our reliance on imported oil. We've got to overhaul an educational system that does not prepare kids to function in a high-tech era. We need to rebuild roads and bridges, smooth out transport on land, sea and air.
Viewed against such needs, the budget accord is pathetically piddling, but it's a start -- one in which Bush & Co. have been dragged kicking and screaming to a posture from which they no longer can argue that governing is one lengthy free lunch.
Where will President Bush head next? Probably not even he knows. Strategy is as foreign to his vocabulary as is the word "sacrifice."
"Don't worry; be happy" was his slogan for getting elected, along with a few foolish irrelevancies about Willie Horton and flag factories.
He's now facing situations in the Persian Gulf, in finance, in education and environment and in energy dependence where such airy frivolities won't hack the problem, even for campaign sound-bite purposes.
The standoff with Saddam offers him a superb platform to come before the nation with a bark-off assessment of what we need to get out of political fantasy land and back into the real world. To make that acceptable, he'd first have to load a fair share of the tax burden back onto the rich.
I hope he will. Congress can't. It doesn't have his pulpit. But, as a long-time Bush-watcher, I'd give odds the other way. The best bet may be for a Democratic candidate in 1992 (Mario Cuomo, maybe?) who's willing to take a chance on the common sense and staying power of the American people.
Jim Fain is a columnist for Cox Newspapers. -