WHATEVER the economic consequences of the new budget deal, for the Republican Party the political fallout looks devastating. This is noted not with distress or satisfaction, but as a fact that will color the coming elections and may prove pivotal for the Bush presidency. Throughout the budget wrestlings of the last few weeks, President Bush looked indecisive and vacillating - in part offsetting the strong image he has projected in the Gulf crisis.
In the end, he got almost nothing he wanted in the budget package. Taxes have gone up for nearly everyone, and the income-tax rate has gone up for the relatively affluent ($80,000 a year is hardly Trumpian), Bush's natural constituency.
Democratic leaders understandably are crowing that the budget reflects Democratic principles. With an election only days off, Bush is in the anomolous position of having to campaign against the deal he cut with Congress. Meanwhile, many Republican candidates are campaigning against their own president.
The trouble for the GOP began when President Bush abandoned his campaign pledge not to raise taxes, which had been the cornerstone of both Reagonomics and Reagapolitics. ``Read my lips'' gave way to a flippant ``Read my hips.'' But Bush proved to be no Red Grange when it came to swivel-hipping his way through waiting Democratic tacklers.
Bush's flip-flop did more than just break a promise - something all presidents occasionally do. It shifted the center of the economic and budget debate away from growth (a Republican issue) to fairness (a Democratic issue). As a prominent Democrat said, ``The issue no longer was whether to tax, but who to tax.'' Suddenly the Democrats had the home-field advantage, as they never did under Ronald Reagan.
Reagan managed never to put the middle class at odds with the rich. His tax cuts benefited the well-to-do more than middle- and lower-income taxpayers, but no one seemed to mind. When Bush opened the tax-hike door, however, he potentially pitted his party against moderate-income voters.
Conservative House Republicans, the keepers of Reagan's flame, were horrified by the tax-raising plan that came out of the bipartisan budget summit. Led by Rep. Newt Gingrich, they scuttled it, embarrassing Bush. Yet they only made things worse for the party. After the Democrats hawked the fairness issue, the final package was even less acceptable from a GOP standpoint.
The national Republican Party appears to be in disarray, and, for the first time in a decade, the Democrats have taken the initiative in articulating the terms of the nation's economic debate.
By agreeing to a deficit-reduction plan, Bush did the right thing for the country (though there should have been bolder spending cuts). But with more political deftness, he might have paid a lower price in prestige and party unity.