One of the more amusing entertainments of the political season is to watch House Republicans valiantly fight to preserve key elements of the 1990 budget agreement as President Bush tries to slither away from it. Not that many of these Republicans were pleased when Mr. Bush reneged on his "no new taxes" pledge in order to put some sense in government finances. What they liked then, and what they like now, were provisions to protect the defense establishment from evisceration.
Another spectacle worthy of a giant belly laugh is the sudden attachment the Democratic leadership has developed for that same budget agreement after having tried to wreck it scarcely before the ink was dry.
One wonders how much hilarity and hypocrisy the citizens can take -- even in an election year.
Like any hard-fought Washington compromise, the 1990 budget agreement was painful to put together, to pass and to preserve. But deficits were out of control. Government spending was out of control. A full-scale economic crisis demanded action. The result was a giant trade-off: higher taxes in exchange for tight limits on domestic, defense and foreign aid outlays to reduce national debt growth by $500 billion over five years.
Liberal Democrats hated the provisions decreeing that any cuts in each of the three categories had to be used for cutting the deficit. No trading was allowed. Savings in defense spending as the Cold War ended could not be used to pump up road-building or welfare checks. Conservative Republicans were outraged by an increase in income tax rates in higher brackets, a frame of mind that was to lead to the Buchanan Phenomenon.
For all of last year President Bush defended his handiwork against right-wing attack, confident he was coasting to easy renomination. But when the recession and Pat Buchanan's strong showing in Republican primaries put the fear of defeat in him, he came up with the astounding assertion that the budget agreement was a mistake. Why? Not because it was bad policy but because it brought him "political grief."
Clumsily, almost pathetically, the president was giving ammunition to critics on the left and right who charge he has no political philosophy, no principles. His mistake was not the budget agreement, which marked a return to pre-voodoo economics, but his flat promise in the 1988 campaign that there would be "no new taxes."
There are certain high-stakes issues on which would-be presidents should always retain flexibility. No one -- not Wilson, not Roosevelt, not Johnson -- can promise he will keep the country from going to war. No one can accurately predict how the economy will behave. No one can anticipate natural catastrophe that can force policy departures. It is grossly irresponsible for any politician, no matter his obsession for office, to make rigid, unrealistic commitments that ultimately might be detrimental to the nation.