THE BUDGET talks have become a symbol of national ineffectuality; they reek of self-serving weakness. The most powerful public officials in the country agree, or profess, that the deficit has to come down, lest economy and government both founder. The national interest is rightly said to be at stake. Yet these people have now spent weeks in rooms together and can't get it done because they can't agree in an election year at whose expense to do it.

The president has complicated the process incomprehensibly. He did the right thing in climbing off his campaign pledge of no new taxes. That was a move toward social as well as fiscal balance; it meant the deficit could come down without sacrificing vital governmental functions. Yet then the president unaccountably, or perhaps all too explicably, took the second step away from balance in calling for a capital gains cut.

He would make this piece of discredited trickle-down economics part of the deficit reduction package even though in the long run it would increase the deficit -- but that is not its worst feature. A gains cut would be a flagrant, multi-billion-dollar giveaway to the people in this country least in need who have already been the major beneficiaries of the uneven boom of the Reagan years. In a time of rising income inequality, in which the government's traditional, mildly redistributional role in the economy has already been reduced, more than 80 percent of the benefit of this gratuitous provision would go to the 2 or 3 percent of taxpayers with the highest incomes in the land. The Democrats are right to object. Even Bob Dole and Bob Michel are off the reservation.

They say he's ready to compromise, but he doesn't say that. Instead he says on the stump that capital gains aren't the hangup, the Democrats are. The way to prove that is to drop the gains proposal and call the Democrats' bluff. The president is right that many of them are suspect converts to the new party line of fiscal responsibility, that they are invoking the deficit mainly as a wedge to increase taxes and refuel the government. But he has been no more eager or able than they, or than his predecessor, to propose the spending cuts that must accompany a tax increase, and that he says they avoid. He has yet to propose a credible deficit-reducing budget of his own for the year ahead. He should make a proposal, sell it if he can, broker it out with both parties in Congress. Instead he and they are playing the usual transparent game of chicken with the government as the election approaches, both parties hanging back lest the voters blame them for taking a stand. If they had the courage to take a stand, our sense is that the fed-up voters would bless them instead.