How The Budget War Was Fought

MIRAGE: Why Neither Democrats Nor Republicans Can Balance the Budget, End the Deficit, and Satisfy the Public

By George Hager and Eric Pianin

Times 337pp $25

It's altogether appropriate that Bob Dole is the tragic hero of Mirage, a compelling book on budget-balancing wars past and present, written by veteran Washington reporters George Hager and Eric Pianin. In this tale of adventure and deceit, Dole is the Don Quixote figure, a knight errant from the plains of Kansas who is forever tilting at budget windmills, accompanied by his hapless GOP sidekick, Sancho--make that Senator--Pete V. Domenici of New Mexico, a moody ally whom Dole affectionately dubs "my calculator."

Dole, the doomed 1996 Republican Presidential candidate, is an appropriate protagonist for this work, which often brings vividly to life what most Americans view as a boring process. In search of his impossible dream, the no-pain, no-gain conservative is betrayed by friends and enemies alike, ranging from Ronald Reagan (who seals a deal with archliberal Democrat Tip O'Neill over drinks while Republican leader Dole is left high and dry) to House Speaker Newt Gingrich (who constantly belittles war hero Dole as a tax-hiking appeaser).

Throughout the indignities, the resilient Dole retains his fervor for a balanced budget and maintains his wicked sense of humor. As recounted in Mirage, Dole privately refers to three key aides to then-President Bush--Treasury Secretary Nicholas Brady, Budget Director Richard Darman, and Chief of Staff John Sununu--as Nick, Dick, and, for the abrasive chief of staff, a vulgarity that rhymes with brick. Once, as the three Bushies filed into a room, Dole instinctively responded: "Here come Nick, Dick--and Paul." Sununu was mystified. On an earlier occasion, when then-President Reagan sent Dole a Chaska Indian peace pipe to make up for an insulting remark by his Chief of Staff, Donald T. Regan, the acerbic Dole quipped: "Is it ticking?"

Hager, a Congressional Quarterly budget reporter, and Pianin, a Washington Post congressional correspondent, clearly are masters of the arcane budget process, but they manage to write a book that is readily accessible to a mass audience, not just policy wonks. At its core are a cast of richly developed characters. Hager and Pianin's Ronald Reagan, for example, is a finely textured figure who is neither the out-of-touch boob portrayed by liberals nor the saintly visionary hailed by many conservatives. This Reagan is a man of both principle and accommodation, who is much more committed to his cherished cold-war military buildup than he is to a balanced budget.

House Majority Leader Dick Armey of Texas is portrayed as one of the few Republicans who truly understands President Bill Clinton. He plumbs the President's psyche by reading Bob Woodward's The Agenda and later causes Clinton to blow a gasket by criticizing both White House Mediscare rhetoric and Hillary Rodham Clinton. An angry Bill Clinton explodes: "There is no scare tactic we've used that is half as bad as the lies that you used.... And another thing, Mr. Armey. In this debate, I never once attacked your wife." The President's ferocious determination to fight back took Capitol Hill Republicans by surprise. "We just assumed that given enough pressure, Clinton would do what he always had done--cave and cut a deal," explained House Republican Conference Chairman John Boehner of Ohio.

Hager and Pianin describe at length how petty personal animosities and complex political machinations at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue conspire to make a balanced-budget deal "a taunting and vexing mirage shimmering on the political horizon." They fail, however, to examine the grassroots political pressures that complicate the prospects of cutting a deal. They virtually ignore the paradox of budget politics: that most Americans favor a balanced budget but also strongly oppose the budget cuts or tax increases required to get there. While the authors document how Gingrich's rampaging ego and strategic miscalculations helped to kill a budget deal in 1995, that wasn't the sole--or even primary--reason the talks collapsed. Instead, mistakes were made all around by Clinton, Dole, and other key players.


Not only is Mirage a useful historical reference work but it is amazingly relevant to today's headlines. The book's pessimistic subtitle notwithstanding, it's clear that the painful lessons of recent budget failures recounted in Mirage have not been lost on some of the key players in the current deficit-elimination negotiations. New White House Chief of Staff Erskine B. Bowles has avoided the bad-faith negotiating, budget gimmicks, and partisan demagoguery that poisoned the well in 1995. Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott of Mississippi, who replaced Dole last year, has proven to be an astute student of history who won't let personal pique or past bad blood derail the talks. And even volatile Senate Budget Committee Chairman Domenici and his excitable House counterpart, John R. Kasich of Ohio, are exhibiting newfound maturity along with their unquenchable zeal to balance the budget.

It's perfect timing that Mirage has been published just as the current budget talks are reaching a denouement. Events in Washington over the next few weeks will determine whether this is just another mirage or a breakthrough of historic proportions. And Bob Dole, vanquished by the voters, will be watching history unfold from the sidelines.

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