THE DEMOCRATS did well last week by doing something that goes against the nature of the politician: They kept their mouths shut.
The collapse of the budget summit talks brought forth angry recriminations from Republican House Whip Newt Gingrich but conflicting murmurs from George Bush, who one minute threatened to hammer the Democrats with a deadline and the next minute said he didn't mean it.
White House spokesman Roman Papadiuk said, "If we can't get a good agreement, it's because the Democrats haven't come up with a plan."
This is a rather astonishing statement of abdication of presidential power. It's presidents who come up with plans; that's in the job description. But Bush has made it clear almost since he took office that the picky domestic side of the job bores and irritates him. He has largely bound over his responsibilities in that field to Chief of Staff John Sununu.
From the beginning, Bush has hoped, and indicated, that the Democrats must present a tax plan of their own, sparing him the obloquy that overcomes breakers of no-tax pledges. But the Democrats have discovered the one advantage of being shut out of the White House for so long, which is that they don't have to talk about taxes first.
They adopted a strategy: Hang tough. They held to it. They did not chase every rabbit of provocative rhetoric that was released by the White House. They displayed a discipline that amazed themselves. They kept quiet. When the budget talks fell apart, they spoke in comparative measured tones -- with the possible exception of "Big John" Dingell, chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, who has a separate sovereignty. He referred to the other side as "a congregation of jackasses."
The Democrats were making the point that George Bush is president and must make difficult decisions, decisions that could alienate large blocs of voters. He will have to say one of the two words he hates most: "yes" or "no."
He is totally at a loss in the budget crisis. It was not for this that he spent some 20 years of his life running for the presidency. He likes high places, summits, exchanges of telephone calls and letters with world leaders, the sound of trumpets, troops drawn up for review, state dinners, confidential chats in drawing rooms with brocade furniture.
But budget summits? Endless, wearying haggling over school lunch programs, the counting rules for Congressional Budget Office and Office of Management and Budget, the rate of the S & L cleanup?
Bush's stand-in, Sununu didn't enjoy them much, according to fellow participants. He ostentatiously read other papers, fumed when the bells rang for votes on Capitol Hill and the senators and congressmen trooped out of the budget sessions.
OMB Director Richard Darman tried to strike deals when the Democrats didn't think they were quite ready. House Majority Leader Richard Gephardt never let him have the last word. Neither Darman nor Sununu enjoyed at all Sen. Wyche Fowler's reading aloud from a 1968 floor speech by a then-congressman from Texas, George Bush. It was a clarion call for presidential leadership on the budget and on the economy.
Darman wanted taxes to appear as if by magic -- or, as one participant said, "immaculate conception" in a joint communique. It didn't happen. The Democratic chorus was "After you, Mr. President."
Around the edges, as mad as Rumpelstiltskin, danced the Republican whip, Gingrich, who acted out the president's conflict. Gingrich was a prime mover in the Republican conference that overwhelmingly passed a "no new taxes" resolution in defiance of the president. The next day, he strolled into the budget summit airily professing that he stood with the president.
Gingrich's hope is that the summit is not resumed after the August recess and that all this demented talk about new taxes is put aside forever. He has been trying to whip up the president's rage at Democratic "bad faith." The president may be tempted to have a public tantrum, but he knows it won't do if he is to have a settlement.
In this context, the Iraq-Kuwaiti conflict is almost a relief.
The Democrats head out of town with a feeling they may have done something right for a change. They are confident they have won the argument in the eyes of the public. It's not good, obviously, not to have a budget, but they can hardly be blamed for that. Even the dimmest voter knows that George Bush was elected president, and there was no fine print on the ballot saying he would be excused from messy domestic quarrels.
And if the talk ever gets around to taxes, the Democrats will be united again. They're solid for progressive taxation, which they think is a winner.
Mary McGrory is a Washington Post columnist.