ONLY the keen political observer of the grass roots really knows whether, in the end, taxes will be proposed to deal with the budget deficit - or whether the budget summit will end up mainly as a talking exercise. He knows that the driving force behind such action must be a public recognition that such sacrifice is necessary. At this point, there's very little indication that the American people see the necessity of having such pain inflicted on them. Oh, a tax on other people? ``Sure, that's fine.'' But on them? ``Hey, I'll vote against you if you do that.''
Americans these days are relatively happy with their lot. Obviously, there are pockets of unhappiness, particularly in the inner cities, where joblessness remains so high and the poor, with ever-rising prices, get poorer. And many economists see signs on the horizon that point to a recession if the budget deficit isn't lowered. But the average person sees good times in front of him and isn't easily convinced, in that relatively glowing context, that bad times are coming if he doesn't tighten his belt.
One poll has come up with the finding that 50 percent of Americans would be willing to accept more taxes if they are ``necessary.'' Pro-tax politicians are gleefully citing that poll to support their argument that the public now is ready for the president to act ``responsibly'' and impose taxes.
Yet there is no indication that the American people - even those who might be willing to accept a tax - are convinced yet that they need to give up some income to avert an unseen disaster.
Candidate George Bush swore there would be no new taxes. Now, as president, he indicates that in the light of new circumstances - a burgeoning budget deficit that went far above his previous calculations - he may have changed his mind. So he set up these summit talks between administration and congressional leaders in which he has pledged ``no preconditions'' on discussions about possible solutions.
Conventional wisdom in Washington says that a move to increased or new taxes in inevitable. But how's this going to come about? I've sat in on a succession of breakfasts with high-level Democrats who are playing key roles in the budget talks - Senators Mitchell, Bentsen, and Sasser, and Representative Panetta - and I've yet to hear a one say he advocated new taxes. No, they well remember - as Senator Sasser pointed out - how Fritz Mondale was punished by the voters in 1984 for proposing higher taxes.
So each side is asking the other to stand up courageously and tell the public that taxes now may be necessary. Indeed, the Democrats say the current talks will go absolutely nowhere unless the president takes this initiative. But Bush keeps talking of a report from this bipartisan committee that must precede his going public with his position on dealing with the deficit.
This is all tippy-toe stuff. If the implications of the budget deficit are as bad as both sides apparently think they are, both the president and congressional leaders are going to have to get off this timid stuff and talk straight to the American people.
Even then it's going to be a monumental educational task to break through the public complacency. The remedy coming from on high is not all on the side of taxing, either. From Ronald Reagan comes the word that, as he sees it, sticking with a no-tax position is a matter of ``character.'' And HUD Secretary Jack Kemp has revealed perhaps a basic difference with the president by underscoring his long-held position: That the deficit is ``not ballooning'' and that any attempt to reduce it by raising taxes will hurt, not help, the economy.
Just before Bush took office Democratic Rep. Dan Rostenkowski, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, came to our breakfast and predicted that taxes were inevitable. He said the Republicans and the Democrats would finally join arms and ``leap over the cliff together.'' Such bipartisan action - and avoidance of voter retaliation - may be coming.
But the public will have to become convinced that taxes are necessary. With no crisis at hand, or easily perceived, how is this going to be done?