It falls upon those of us who thought the budget crisis was much more than a budget crisis to note that the budget settlement is much more than a budget settlement. This is not to say that its economic terms are beyond cavil; obviously that's not so. But in its political implications it seems to me to send pings with a potential to reverberate around the world. It announces quietly to those who will listen that in the best possible way America is back -- as a society able to claim that it is finally buckling down to the central business of matching ends and means. At least it is making a start.
The notion of the magic of the economic and political marketplace that had long captivated Ronald Reagan caught up many others when socialism, as though to prove the point, crumbled in most of its global outposts through the '80s. Lost in the excitement, or so it often seemed, was the sense that the United States still needed to perform some difficult corrections of its own to build a good domestic foundation for a solid world role.
This is the promise of the budget agreement. It takes a half-trillion dollar whack out of the federal budget deficit over five years, provides for new revenues and installs a new regime to cap government spending. Coming late, incomplete and bedraggled as they do, these measures have not evoked much unrestrained cheering. Indeed, there is much in the package to be modest about, and President Bush further confuses things by perversely attacking the political party (the Democrats) that brought him this triumph when his own party let him down. Still, the changes can fairly be taken to represent a national decision to replace drift and paralysis with conscious choice. This makes the settlement the best national news in a decade.
Given our incorrigible political nature and the closeness to the midterm elections, these steps were quickly reduced in many quarters to the small change of partisan combat. President Bush came out of the battle bleeding and the Democrats elated -- political results that tend to obscure the substantive importance of what they together did.
Others found substantive flaws in the favor given or denied to particular tax brackets or to one or another category of federal spending (defense, etc.). But this is to miss the forest for the trees. Considering the arduous process by which the budget finally began to be fixed, it is hard to see how the result could have been very different. Anyway, there's always next year. The important thing was that the elected government began to take control of the largest instrument of governance. The nation can only be made stronger for it.
Here it helps to realize what close attention serious people around the globe pay to the way America governs itself. Our popular culture is the familiar export; our political culture is the export that counts. Soviets and East Europeans, for instance, now arrive in Washington in droves looking for clues to their own self-liberation -- looking not so much for democratic ideas, which in truth many of them grasp better than we do, but for portable techniques and models of effective government. All this was more than a little humbling in the years of our public distraction and neglect. Now we may be able to stand up and share our experience with a bit more self-respect.
There is a whole other class of advice that Americans offer the world that goes under the label of structural change. Perform massive surgery upon yourself, we regularly and blithely tell supplicants to the IMF and the World Bank. But we could do this in the '80s not because we were setting an appropriate example of self-discipline but simply because we controlled the money. By the difficult social and economic changes rendered in the budget settlement, we improve our capacity to instruct others in the rigors of national striving.
The program of Mikhail Gorbachev gave a new international profile to an activity -- bold, self-starting reform -- that had long been regarded as a special American talent and trademark. But we had gotten lazy and self-indulgent. We have always had the glasnost, or openness. Now, after too long a lapse, we are back at a measure of perestroika, or restructuring. For the changes embedded in the budget are a response not only to current economic and social pressures but to the claims of the larger community and the next generation. In that sense they have a political dimension and a moral dimension as well. I cannot recall feeling better about something the American government has done.