When King Edward I in 1294 summoned the clergy and demanded half their income, the dean of St. Paul's dropped dead on the spot. That was a tax protest beyond the dreams (so far) of Newt Gingrich.
The 1990 budget tedium began a few months ago with promises to cut about $50 billion from a deficit of about $200 billion. Then the promise was revised to $40 billion from a deficit of about $250 billion. Now it is $34 billion (the costs of Desert Shield will not be counted) from a deficit that probably will be well over $300 billion.
The newest "deadline" (cross the line and die? hardly) that will be missed is Oct. 19. By then, the House and Senate are supposed to have approved the various committee plans for cutting spending and raising revenues to comply with this week's achievement, the budget resolution.
That resolution is a promise. The reconciliation bill due by Oct. 19 is the delivery. Those committees have Democratic majorities. President Bush has been reduced to a bystander.
His "summit" deal collapsed in part because the process that produced it made most of Congress marginal. And Bush's aides (the tone of a White House is set at the very top and trickles down) seemed overbearing.
Richard Darman, the budget director, is commonly called "brilliant," but that handicap is no excuse for ignoring banal but important truths, such as: Decisions made without the concurrence of Congress are in the subjunctive mood.
John Sununu (who dismissed a Republican senator, Mississippi's Trent Lott, as "insignificant") is not the first clever person to become impatient with the culture of Congress or to relish the role of a president's designated thug.
But the serious problem is Bush's mentality, one that produces his preference for policy-making in private by a few in an aura of bipartisanship that blurs party differences by de-emphasizing principles and ideas. This preference is a facet of Bush's and his White House's temperament, concerning which there is confusion.
What has been described as Bush's modesty is actually arrogance. His modesty is supposedly shown by his emotional minimalism, his complacent inarticulateness, his de-emphasis to the point of disparagement of the rhetorical dimension of the presidency. Bush and his handlers have spent 20 months telling the country what the country this month has told him: He is no Reagan.
He discounts rhetoric because he discounts persuasion of the public. He is governing less by continuous acts of public consent than by a small elite's entitlement, the right of the political class to take care of business cozily.
So, naturally, he has no need to do what Reagan did -- argue, persuade, precipitate confrontations with Congress, force polarizing choices. All those things shave points off a president's popularity, but solidify a committed base outside Washington's Beltway.
Now the mountain (actually, the Hill) will labor mightily and bring forth a modified mouselet, a package of mini-measures cutting the 1991 deficit about 10 or 12 percent (depending on the gravity of the recession). The economic effects of $34 billion trimmed from the $300 billion deficit of a $1.3 trillion budget in a $5 trillion economy will be trivial. But the political consequences of this month's spectacle may be large.
We stand on the lip of a recession, and perhaps of war, with a president who is being outmaneuvered and toyed with by Democrats who like him as much as ever and fear him less than ever. A president who will not appeal over Congress' head to the country is Congress' dream.
By his capital-gains obsession, Bush is dissipating the principal Reagan effect on the Republican Party, the appeal to those blue-collar Democrats who for a while stopped seeing Republicans as "the rich." And Bush's syrupy bipartisanship -- secluded summits, Sunday togetherness in the Rose Garden -- is convincing an unenthralled public that Republicans are not, as until recently had been thought, better than Democrats at budgeting.
Finally, incumbents of both parties are being hurt as the budget debacle fuels a nationwide campaign to limit the number of terms elected officials can serve.
In 1988, the Baltimore Orioles lost 108 games with a lot of expensive veteran players. Then the Orioles management thought: Hey, we can lose 107 games with hungry, spirited rookies -- and might do better. In 1989, the Orioles had baseball's youngest team, and smallest payroll -- and almost won a division title.
Today many voters are saying: Hey, 535 political rookies -- 535 people plucked from the concourse at O'Hare Airport -- could bollix things up as badly as the experienced politicians have done (how experienced do you have to be to close the Washington Monument?), and they might do better.