THE BUDGET CRISIS does not grow out of too much politics. It results from the suppression and distortion of politics. Yes, many members of Congress who voted against the first version of the budget deal were responding to pressures from their constituents. There's a name for that kind of behavior: democracy.

You wouldn't know that from a lot of the commentary on the budget struggles, especially as the original deal was being voted down earlier this month. Members of Congress who voted no were pilloried as irresponsible, cowardly, craven, short-sighted -- and worse. The notion seemed to be that worrying about what the voters might think was somehow unseemly.

"The truth is they are simply listening to their political consultants," declared Andrea Mitchell on NBC as members of the House prepared to vote down the budget package. Isabel Sawhill, senior fellow at the Urban Institute, contended that "pure political timidity" prevented enactment of a measure that "we might come to love" once in place.

Some politicians seemed wary of their own trade. Rep. Wayne Owens (D-Utah) declared that "the Republic's ability to function under stress was tested and was found wanting. This was the hollow victory of political consultants and pollsters who warned us that we faced hostility and perhaps political oblivion at home if we passed that inequitable package of compromises."

But the key word in this quotation is not "pollster" but "inequitable." The budget package agreed to by the White House and congressional leadership in fact threatened to drive key segments of the electorate further out of the two-party system. It would have undermined, rather than reinforced, the prospects for a national consensus on how to deal with what increasingly looks like an economic crisis. The budget problem and looming economic trouble are likely to inflict pain on everyone. The non-rich may not accept this at all. But if they do, it will only be because they are convinced that the sacrifice will be worth it in the long run, and that the pain is distributed in proportion to the ability to bear it.

The budget proposal did not convince them on either count -- which is why "tax the rich" is suddenly back in our political discourse again after a long absence. The plan, with its collection of beer, gasoline and cigarette taxes, along with Medicare hikes and a new requirement that anyone thrown out of work wait for two week before collecting unemployment, called for the greatest sacrifice from Jill and Joe Sixpack. These are the voters who did not share in the prosperity of the past decade.

They are also, ironically, the same voters who have been key to the outcome of elections for the last 20 years. The drift of working- and lower-middle-class voters to the GOP has been critical to the success of its presidential candidates in winning five of the last six elections; their retention of Democratic loyalties in lower-level contests has been critical to continued Democratic control of the House and the Senate.

Both parties have wooed these voters with rhetoric. But in the shaping of policy to address their economic concerns, Democrats, often more attentive to PAC contributors than their core constituents, have been inept. Republicans, who have never forgotten their core constituency among the wealthy, have been disingenous.

Disaffection with Democratic presidential candidates arose from three related sources. First, the economic failures of the Carter years led working- and middle-class voters to doubt the ability of Democrats to manage the economy. Second, inflation and a regressive payroll tax steadily raised their taxes, leading them to look upon government as an enemy. Third, government seemed to be doing less and less for the non-elderly middle class. To many in the middle and working classes, the most visible programs were welfare and other forms of aid to the non-working poor.

Gone were the New Deal days when Democrats taxed Republicans to pay for programs for Democrats. Now, it seemed, traditional Democrats were being taxed to help other Democrats. So when Republicans promised less government and lower taxes, many voters in the lower middle class and working class were ready to respond.

But the Republicans have a problem of their own: They have talked one game and played another. The lower-middle-class and working-class voters who were the key to their triumphs in the 1980s saw their incomes stagnate over the decade -- while average income grew by almost 16 percent, and the income of those in the top one percent shot up by 87 percent, from $213,675 to $399,697. Whatever income tax cuts low- and moderate-income workers received were more than offset by mounting payroll taxes.

While both parties may fairly be criticized for failing to put forward plans that would deal at once with the deficit problem and the legitimate concerns of this electorate, they cannot be blamed for rejecting the kind of regressive budget reduction proposal agreed to by White House and congressional leaders. The perils in that direction were brought home dramatically by the election results from the Louisiana Senate race a week ago.

Although a purely economic analysis cannot fully explain the strong showing by former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke, the parallels between the characteristics of Duke's constituency and of those potentially most hurt by the budget deal are striking. A University of New Orleans poll conducted in early September -- a poll which underestimated Duke's ultimate support -- found that Duke was supported by 46 percent of whites without a high school degree, 30 percent of high school graduates and only 17 percent of those with college degrees. By the same token, as University of Maryland economist Frank Levy, has pointed out, the people who have suffered the worst economic setbacks in recent years are the poorly educated.

In fashioning a budget, Republicans and Democrats need to pay more, not less attention to such election returns if they are to save the country from a dangerous and intolerant politics. There are many lessons to be drawn from Louisiana, but one of them surely is that there are limits to the burdens that government can pile onto the lower middle class.

Over the long run, then, the republic may welcome the defeat of a budget package fashioned by a small group of congressional leaders and White House aides -- especially if it opens the way to a real debate over how the burdens of budget reduction should be borne and how economic policies can best restore economic growth.

One person who is clearly having trouble with the new contours of the debate is George Bush. Last week was the worst of his presidency as he flipped, flopped and flipped again over whether he would agree to raise income tax rates on the rich in exchange for a cut in the capital gains tax of primary benefit to the same group. Bush's troubles were blamed on factors ranging from staff incompetence to the president's own manifest indifference to domestic policy. But the real difficulty lies in the contradiction at the heart of the Republican electoral coalition, a contradiction made explicit in the face-off between the president and House Republican Whip Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.).

Bush's imperative, as the leader of the executive branch, was to execute some kind of budget deal. For Gingrich, the priorities were necessarily different. The realignment strategy of his band of conservatives seeking to take over the House and Senate has depended on translating anti-government and anti-Democratic Party views in presidential elections into a driving force in congressional and local elections.

No wonder Gingrich and his friends were so furious when Bush backed off his no-tax pledge. The Republicans' anti-tax stand was the strategic pillar of this approach, the ideal appeal to economically beseiged voters, especially those voicing strong discontent over programs for the poor and minorities. The tax issue issue was the key to uniting middle class voters with the wealthy in a solid Republican alliance. In fact, Gingrich has carried the strategy a step further, trying to steal the Democrats' thunder by proposing a series of tax cuts aimed at the middle class.

In all this, congressional Republicans of the Gingrich stripe had an advantage that neither the White House nor the congressional Democratic majority enjoyed: Until now they did not need to show how their numbers would add up.

To their credit, some House conservatives now want to put together a package of their own. But actually spelling out the details of a workable plan is, for the Republicans, the heart of the darkness. The truth is that however unpopular programs for the poor might be, they are a relatively small part of the federal budget. If conservatives really want to balance the budget without tax increases, they will ultimately have to make not only large across-the-board cuts in all domestic programs, but whopping cuts both in defense and in popular entitlements such as Social Security and Medicare. This, of course, would be electorally disastrous.

Conservative Republicans have been left with a series of hard-to-sell arguments. Of late, Gingrich has sounded like a born-again Keynesian, arguing that a recession is the worst time to try to raise taxes. He has a point, but he ignores the economic chaos that might be caused if the budget deficit were allowed to grow further. Of course his faction may continue to claim that economic growth could let us get out of the mess we're in. But they have been saying that for 10 years. And, in any event, no one is predicting robust growth for the near future.

It's not a happy picture, which is why President Bush was reduced last week to asking us to read his hips.

"For the first time in a decade, Democrats have the upper hand in the defining game," said Thomas E. Donilon, a top Democratic strategist in the last three Presidential campaigns. "The Democrats are defining the Republicans as the party of the rich and not of the middle class." House Democrats tried to push this process along by introducing their own "tax-the-rich" plan at the end of last week.

But before they crow too much, the Democrats should remember that they very nearly blew this opportunity. The tax, unemployment and Medicare provisions of the budget proposal the Democratic leadership endorsed would have forced just those voters who have faced rough times through the 1980s to pay a disproportionate share of the deficit reduction costs at the start of the 1990s. They were thus playing directly into the Republican caricature of the Democratic Party: Democratic leaders seemed so eager to raise taxes that they didn't much care whose taxes would be raised.

So the Democrats still have some deciding to do. "Eventually, {Congressional leaders} have to decide if the Democrats are going to be the party of the middle class," said Stan Greenberg, a Democratic poll taker. "I don't know hom many times you can go to the well and come back with taxes for the middle class."

As for Bush, his first task may be to show that he actually cares enough about domestic policy to have a sense of what his real priorities are. Does he or does he not agree with the supply-siders on the economic benefits of low marginal tax rates? Should the really rich have lower marginal rates than the almost rich? Is that more important to him than a capital gains cut? Is it okay to fund the rest of government with surpluses generated by a regressive payroll tax? Does he find questions like this too boring compared with the stimulations of foreign policy?

In the end, the budget explosion has cleared a lot of ground and opened the way for a more honest debate. Such a debate should make clear to voters exactly where the federal dollar goes -- and they may be surprised at how little of it goes to unpopular programs. It should ask the voters squarely how much of this government they are willing to pay for. And this debate must also respond to the electorate's smouldering resentments. For responding to the electorate is exactly what political debates in a democracy are supposed to do.

For a decade, our politics has been built around the proposition that we could have lots of government without paying for it. As long as voters were offered such a happy proposition, they were only too happy to accept. If harder times are coming, voters should now be given an opportunity to decide how to apportion the burden. The deficit, the creation of democratic politics, will only be solved by democratic politics.

Thomas Edsall and E. J. Dionne cover politics and social issues for the Washington Post.