THE BUDGET negotiations that produced such a shabby result last week were never about fiscal policy. Everyone understands in what direction that should go. The issue in these largely fruitless talks was where to find the political courage. The painful thing about them was the weakness that they exposed, not merely in this particular president or Congress or the two parties, but somehow in the system. They were a month-long test of character that all sides failed. "We didn't have enough heroes," Speaker Jim Wright said afterward. They didn't have any.

Of the $30 billion in first-year savings on which the negotiators agreed, about a fourth would be phony, mainly the proceeds of asset sales. The rest of the familiar list has a scraped-together quality that inspires little confidence. The reason is that too much of the budget was put out of bounds.

This time, for all the oratory the subject still inspires, the problem was not defense. For three years there has been a consensus in Congress that the defense buildup needs to be leveled off; the only dispute has been how fast. Liberal Democrats in the House in particular continue to call for large cuts, but the Democrats as a party don't want to undo the buildup, any more than the Republicans seriously think it can be continued. Defense is a draw these days.

The same is basically true of the domestic discretionary accounts, the ones subject to the annual appropriations process. Here it is the Republicans who mostly continue to call for cuts, and they are right: there are programs in these bills that could easily be dispensed with. But many of these are beloved as much by Republicans as by Democrats, and most are relatively minor. This has probably been the most pawed-over part of the budget in the Reagan years; at most the parties are a few billion dollars apart.

The standoff remains in the other great parts of the fiscal equation. The script is familiar. The Democrats fear that the Republicans will label them tax-and-spend if there is a tax increase. The Republicans fear that the Democrats will label them anti-elderly if there is a Social Security cut. For a while the two sides contemplate doing both, then compromise by doing neither, reducing the risk to themselves in exactly the same proportion that they increase the risk to the economy.

The plan announced on Friday lacks a modest income or gasoline tax increase to anchor the lesser provisions contemplated on the revenue side, a comparable cut in Social Security and related benefits to do the same on spending. That would make it credible. Now it is little more than another holding action until the next election and next administration. For opposite reasons some members of both parties, particularly in the House, profess to be disgusted enough with this gray porridge to vote no next month, and bring on the deeper Gramm-Rudman cuts in both defense and domestic programs that lie in wait. The porridge is better than Gramm-Rudman, if only because those cuts would never last. A no vote would only be worth it if it were a sign that Congress would do the things from which, this time, both it and the administration flinche