It's easy enough to get mad at Congress. The spectacle of those self-righteous, self-interested legislators unable to follow their leaders to a compromise even when there is an American army in the field is disgusting.
They've succeeded at putting together a revised compromise -- not enough to deal in any meaningful way with the deficit over time, but enough to reopen the government's doors. But a deeper disappointment has to be reserved for George Bush.
Trying to get a more nearly balanced budget compromise without spelling out in the clearest possible terms why he has found it necessary to abandon his campaign pledge of "no new taxes" is not just slipshod and cowardly. It is almost certainly bound to fail.
What is required here is a gut-level telling of the story of Reaganomics -- that combination of personal income tax cuts (and their eventual simplification), domestic spending curbs amid increasing defense outlays and tighter money that evolved during Ronald Reagan's first 12 months in the White House.
These were policies whose foreshadowings Bush had once, in the heat of the Republican primaries of 1980, labeled "voodoo economics." But they were deemed appropriate by the Congress that ratified them because of what seemed to be an emergency.
As Newsweek magazine put it in January 1981, "When Ronald Reagan steps into the White House next week, he will inherit the most dangerous economic crisis since Franklin Roosevelt took office 48 years ago."
The Reagan policies were, as usual, a big step into the unknown. Economists often take the position that they are always in the position to offer "correct economic analysis" of the possibilities open to leaders, but there is little reason to believe that this is the case. Nothing was certain about the outcome of the Reagan policies beforehand, not the course of monetary policy, not citizens' response to it, not the overall distributional effects of the changes.
It quickly turned out there were unmistakable "structural deficits" in the government budget even at full employment, as a result of the income tax cuts. The Tax Equity and Fiscal Responsibility Act of 1982 followed, a real tax increase coupled with promises of spending cuts in the "out years" that eventually failed to materialize -- what Republican legislators today regard as a highly significant Democratic double-cross.
A flurry of attempts to negotiate another compromise to narrow the deficits to an acceptable range the next year went nowhere. And so on the eve of the presidential election of 1984, the debate congealed like stale gravy.
At the heart of the Republican position since then has been a "political bet," as Olivier Blanchard has argued, not so much that real growth or inflation would wash away the deficits, as that the cuts in taxes would create, through deficits, pressure to cut spending.
Much of the Reagan program worked more or less as predicted. The vitality of markets that was the heart of the gospel of Reaganomics has been demonstrated so forcibly that Europe is integrating, the Soviet Union is desperately emulating the West, China is trying to regain the treacherous capitalist road and the nations of the Third World are turning to privatization for their next wave of development.
But the particular bet on government spending didn't pay off. Taxing and spending still are dangerously far apart. So are the legislators who must eventually agree on some combination of tax increases and spending cuts to bring the budget more nearly into trim.
But George Bush has made no systematic attempt to account for the place of the deficit and the national debt in the greater scheme of things. Instead, he has sought a largely backroom compromise to defuse the issue, for a few more years at least. He has left his henchmen to duel with angry reporters, who think that his turnaround means that Walter Mondale and Michael Dukakis were right.
What might he have said? He might have said that the Ford-Carter-Reagan years had brought to an end a long period of widespread belief in salvation by government. He might have said that successive American governments had sought various mechanisms to arrest the tendency to ever greater public spending, that some worked and others didn't, and that something resembling stability had nearly been achieved.
The fact is that the experiments of the Reagan years weren't in any real sense "lies." They worked in some respects; they failed in others. The leader who can take into his hands the telling of this story will be the next president of the United States.
David Warsh is a columnist for the Boston Globe.