ONLY half facetiously, we wonder if Americans wouldn't cheer a move to send congressional and White House budget negotiators out to Dayton, Ohio, to hammer out their deficit compromise.
Spartan military quarters, a persistent mediator, and seclusion from the media set intransigent Balkan leaders on the path to settlement. Something like those factors might also end the foot-dragging of the politicians behind the budget negotiators. Besides, the bargainers would be removed from the perverting influence of daily opinion polls.
This fanciful scene won't happen. We pose it simply to remind all concerned that getting away from the miasma of Washington name-calling and word-twisting often helps to get bargainers with deep-seated, legitimately different viewpoints back to what they have to do for the common good: compromise. That's why the system of cooling off periods and mediators has generally worked well in labor- management disputes.
If mediation were available to Messrs. Clinton, Dole, and Gingrich - and their advisers and committee chairs - what would the mediator be likely to propose?
To the Republicans, who are trying to break habits of deficit and debt growth caused by both parties, he might suggest looking at - and putting on the table - several specific alternative packages for eliminating the deficit in seven years.
To White House chief of staff Leon Panetta and budget director Alice Rivlin, he might suggest presenting a specific plan for a seven-year path to a zero deficit that protects basic education and environment standards but still does what must be done to slow the runaway growth of Medicare and Medicaid costs. (That exercise will prove more difficult than jawboning about these subjects.) The best path would be to start back where Mr. Clinton stood in recent months when he outlined areas of general agreement with Senate Republicans on many of these issues.
If both sides put on the table such detailed alternatives, they would see more clearly a route to compromise. And, make no mistake about it, compromise is the only way to get both houses of Congress and a veto-wielding president to agree on a course for the seven-year belt tightening they have signed on to in principle.
Tempting though it may be for each side to let the other stew for 11 months until voters validate one philosophy or another, that is unacceptable procrastination on issues where realities will ultimately force compromise anyway.
Throughout this year we have tried to define what we believe will produce the greatest good for the greatest number. Our basic principals have been these:
1. Balancing the needs of the present and future generations. That means equality of sacrifice, but the sacrifice won't be dire if economic growth is stimulated. Medicare inflation, for instance, should be anchored to demographic realities so that taxes, pensions, and subsidies should not be more ruinous for future generations in order to cushion today's recipients. Other entitlements should pass a similar test. Among them, welfare and farm subsidies simply should not be allowed to continue as usual. They're broke and need fixing.
2. Exempting from budget cutting only those programs that are an investment in America's future. That means education and research - but not necessarily monoliths like the Education Department, Commerce Department, or Defense Department-sponsored research programs.
3. The tax-cut portion of the GOP plan (and Clinton's once-promised tax cut) should be delayed until deficit-cutting is shown to be on the desired seven-year course to zero. We believe that course will stimulate economic growth, jobs, and income. If so, then it will be time to reward ourselves as citizens.
No one needs to go to Dayton to discover what needs to be done. And there's no need to shut down the government again next week to get it done. Voters can do without that kind of Christmas present.