AS CONGRESS was wrapping up its work on the budget, the president's political and substantive goals continued to collide: Mr. Bush wants to pacify and reunite his party while cutting the deficit, and that has put him in the awkward position of preaching and abandoning a doctrine at the same time. It is neither an easy thing to do nor a pretty thing to see.
The latest argument is not so much that the deficit can be reduced without a tax increase as that the tax increases the president has embraced as crucial to the nation's future economic health are the Democrats' fault. There are, to judge by the campaign speech the president gave in California on Friday, two bases for this.
The first is that it was Democratic spending that caused the deficit. "For 36 years" the Democrats "have controlled the House of Representatives, and year after year after year they have presided over these budget deficits. They appropriate every dime." The current measures are "required because the Democratically-controlled Congress simply has been on an uncontrolled spending binge for years."
The second is that the deficit could have been reduced by spending cuts alone had only the Democrats let the president do as he wished, but of course they wouldn't. "I was determined to do it by a careful balance of spending cuts," he told an appreciative audience in Orange County, but "predictably the Democrats wanted to slash defense and raise income taxes," and they have the votes. The point is therefore to send more Republicans to Congress.
That's as neat as can be, and parts of it are true enough, but other parts aren't. The urge to spend of which the president complains almost always turns out on close inspection to be bipartisan, and Mr. Bush no more than Ronald Reagan before him has ever been able or willing to name and endorse the spending cuts that could bring the deficit out of the danger zone without a tax increase. The government is fatter in the cartoon they like to draw than it is in fact.
It's fine for the president to assert that the Democrats like to tax and spend more than Republicans do; it may even be true. But to encourage the further thought that spending cuts alone can solve the current problem both perpetuates a misleading view of government and risks a return to the very stalemate from which the country and administration are only now painfully recovering.
For political reasons the president now runs the risk of trashing what from a substantive standpoint is one of the higher points of his own administration. He has to choose; not even a president can credibly deplore and claim credit for the same result at the same time.