PRESIDENT BUSH is right to consider the federal budget -- much too big and growing -- to be a real threat. He is also right to be concerned that the events in the Persian Gulf are distracting attention from the budget and diminishing chances of a rational agreement. But he is only about one-third right in blaming the deadlock on the Democrats in Congress.

You are watching an elaborate game in which the goal has less to do with money than with the audience's reactions. Both sides now acknowledge the need for higher taxes as well as some spending cuts -- and that's real progress. But having acknowledged it, and being reconciled to the necessity of carrying at least some of the blame for it, each side is now maneuvering to push as much blame as possible onto the other. Is that surprising? Strategy on each side is cautious and defensive.

In his press conference yesterday, Mr. Bush sought to remind the country that the Democratic leadership has yet to come up with a coherent budget plan of its own. This is true. But the idea of a congressional budget is inevitably pretty dubious. A body of 535 independently elected people will always have trouble coming forward with the kind of specific commitments that Mr. Bush wants. Common practice, as it has developed over the past half-century, assumes that the budget process begins with a firm presidential proposal. Mr. Bush invited the present embarrassment when he declined to offer a realistic budget last January, just as he declines to do it publicly now before the Democrats join him.

For the good of the country, to manage and contain a corrosive quarrel, the Democrats ought to give him some help. They seem to have decided that they will. The question is how much. Mr. Bush is trying to push them a bit harder. But they are off on vacation. An answer is likely to be left, in the classic high-risk congressional style, to the middle of some night a couple of days after the absolute last deadline.

Speaking of deadlines, the commitment of American forces to Saudi Arabia does indeed change the odds for a budget solution. Earlier in the year it was common wisdom that both sides were willing to contemplate automatic cuts -- even huge ones -- inflicted by the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings Act because the chief victim, the Defense Department, was in for big reductions anyway. But leaving military spending to the blind workings of an automatic formula suddenly seems like a much less attractive idea to a lot of people. If there are grounds for hope in this year's budget spectacle, it probably lies there.