Back in 1981, when the Reagan administration was new, the Senate majority leader, Howard Baker, took a look at Ronald Reagan's plan of tax cuts, tax cuts and still more tax cuts and pronounced it a "riverboat gamble." The next sound you hear is a man folding his cards. Baker has called for a tax increase.

Speaking up just a jot too late, Baker said he favored a tax program similar to the one Walter Mondale proposed in the last campaign. "It ain't what Mondale said, but who said it," Baker said. "There are some things only a Republican can do and some things a Democrat can do." One thing a Republican can do, apparently, is find the courage to speak up only when it no longer matters.

What bothers Baker, what bothers almost everyone, is the deficit. After seven weeks of deadlock, Congress finally passed a budget that reduces the deficit by about $56 billion for the coming fiscal year and by $280 billion over the next three years. Be advised, though, that those figures are not beyond dispute. The Congressional Budget Office puts the three-year savings at only $200 billion, which happens to be about what everyone says the deficit for this fiscal year alone will be.

Numbers like this are numbing and, really, meaningless. There is no way for either you or me to envision $200 billion, to calculate what it means and to figure out whether the United States can carry such a debt. Will it, on its own, keep the dollar so high that it produces a trade imbalance, and is it the high dollar alone that's responsible for the trade imbalance? And, as long as we're asking questions, how come Democrats who used to be sanguine about deficits are now running around like Chicken Little?

The last question is easy to answer. Democratic deficits are supposed to have a utility. They were the price paid for pumping up the economy, and they were supposed to be used sparingly: Break Glass Only In Recession. This deficit, though, emerged in a recession, picked up steam in a boom and has become a fact of life. Like a puppy brought home for the day, it has stayed to become a monster. Shoo, shoo, you say, and it just growls back.

There are those, such as Rep. Jack Kemp (R-N.Y.), who say the last thing this country needs is a tax increase. Given the correct monetary policy, some judicious budget pruning and an economy managed by the editorial board of The Wall Street Journal, the deficit would shrink in the ensuing boom. A tax decrease -- not an increase -- is what is needed. Other, more traditional Republicans such as Baker and Majority Leader Bob Dole, take a different view. They see that deficit, and they get sick. If it takes taxes to reduce the deficit then as bad as taxes are, let's have them.

At the moment, the argument remains academic. Emerging now and then from hibernation, the president growls "no tax increase" and confusing that for leadership, goes back to sleep. The fact is, though, the deficit is a rebuke to his own program. It says "failure." Nowhere in his program does it say that the nation is supposed to be running a $200 billion deficit. In fact, this is the same man who once blasted Jimmy Carter for his rather modest $59.6 billion deficit.

A president, especially a popular president such as Reagan, has huge power. For instance, when the president got it into his head that lasers and particle beams could banish nuclear weapons from the Earth, he announced the so-called "Star Wars" program and a whole government -- skeptical and dumbfounded though it was -- fell into line. Similarly, when the president announced early on that he could cut taxes, increase defense spending and not run up a deficit, political leaders such as Howard Baker and George Bush ("voodoo economics") swallowed their doubts and got with the program.

Now, though, it's apparent the riverboat gamble has not paid off. Baker has folded his cards. So, for that matter, have Dole and other Senate Republicans who endorsed a tax on imported oil. These Republican leaders, and some of the Democrats as well, are too late conceding that the president's program won't work. What they call a gamble they knew all along was something else -- a sure-thing deficit. All they needed was the courage to call the president's bluff.