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President leads long line of budget battle losers

The budget battle, whatever its eventual outcome, already has taken a heavy toll on some of this city's most important egos, politicians and institutions. President Bush has just limped through the worst two weeks of his presidency. Most analysts believe Bush's stumbling performance seriously weakened his political hand at a time when an emboldened Democratic-controlled Congress has begun to assert itself not only on the budget but on the Persian Gulf crisis as well.

In a matter of weeks, critics are saying, the world has seen Bush at his best (assembling an international coalition against Iraq) and at his worst (falling apart on the budget).

Newsweek magazine ran a story last week headlined The Carterization of Bush, which it defined as being "weakened to the point of ridicule." The inheritor of the Reagan legacy (which seems to include more liabilities than assets) went from his read-my-lips opposition to higher taxes to his "read-my-hips" flip-flops over which tax increases he would accept.

With his political authority diminished, his approval ratings plunging and his own party bitterly divided and on the defensive, Bush can expect to be blamed if GOP candidates fare poorly in next month's congressional elections. The reason: Republican conservatives are charging that Bush squandered the party's most effective issue _ opposition to higher taxes _ and allowed Democrats to define the GOP as the party of the rich.

Two of the president's top aides, chief of staff John Sununu and budget director Richard Darman, did more harm than good, to listen to the squawks coming from Capitol Hill. Darman and Sununu infuriated GOP congressmen with their arrogance and highhanded tactics. Some lawmakers referred to them as (H.R.) Haldeman and (John) Ehrlichman, a reference to Richard Nixon's two closest White House aides.

Sununu, a former New Hampshire governor, has been the conservatives' main contact in the White House. He was the one to whom they could take their complaints and arguments, always getting a hearing and often getting results.

Now conservatives are saying they have lost confidence in Sununu, not only because of his part in the budget fiasco but because of his threats against GOP House conservatives who refused to support the summit budget package. At one point, he threatened that the president might come into their districts to support primary challengers.

Darman is known as one of the biggest and most fragile egos in town. He quickly established a reputation for brilliance and abrasiveness in the Reagan White House, where he worked at the side of James Baker, then Reagan's chief of staff. No one is suggesting that he is any less brilliant or less abrasive after his latest budget performance. But there are signs that Darman's stature has been diminished, that some will see him as more of a super bureaucrat than as the super strategist and powerbroker.

Senate Finance Chairman Lloyd Bentsen of Texas dealt primarily with Treasury Secretary Nicholas Brady, a former Wall Street investment banker, in fashioning the Senate budget compromise. Brady has something Sununu and Darman are running low on at the moment _ credibility.

One surprise: Vice President Dan Quayle is the one member of the Bush inner circle who is getting positive reviews.

The British magazine The Economist said: "About the only person whose reputation has been enhanced by the great battle of the

budget is, surprisingly enough, Vice President Dan Quayle. Not only did he have no complicity in the original abortive deal, but he has emerged as the administration's steadiest figure, who read Congress clearly, talked the president out of a course urged on him by his other advisers and suggested the compromise that may have put a deal back on track."

On Capitol Hill, the winners and losers are not quite as obvious. Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell of Maine looks stronger for having held together a bipartisan coalition long enough to move a Senate budget plan to a conference committee. For Mitchell, that meant thwarting efforts by rank-and-file Democrats to amend the package to include stiff tax increases on people making more than $200,000 a year.

Senate Republican Robert Dole of Kansas also did his part, demonstrating his loyalty to Bush, who, in the 1988 New Hampshire presidential primary, attacked Dole as "Senator Straddle" for not taking the anti-tax pledge. Dole also raised a question that both sides have dodged in the budget debate.

Dole complained on the Senate floor this week that Medicare has become as politically untouchable as Social Security. "Somebody mentions the word "Medicare,' it's like crying "fire' in a crowded theatre," Dole said. "Why should the taxpayers pay the Medicare premium of millionaires in America or those making $100,000, $200,000, $300,000, $400,000? Why not means-test Medicare?"

On the House side, lawmakers didn't pay much attention to leaders of either party. House Speaker Tom Foley and majority leader Richard Gephardt went through the motions of asking Democrats to support the summit budget package, which Gephardt said he "detested" but signed off on because it was the best the summiteers could do. Democrats joined Republicans in trashing and burying the summit package.

GOP House Whip Newt Gingrich of Georgia, who led the revolt of House Republicans, has yet to pay a price for his disloyalty to the president, unless you count being snubbed by Bush at a White House ceremony.

His critics predict that Gingrich has jeopardized his chances of succeeding Bob Michel as minority leader some day. Indeed, some of his Republican colleagues are so angry they are muttering about trying to strip him of his whip position. But so far no Republican has stepped forward to challenge Gingrich.

Others say Gingrich may have enhanced his credentials as the congressional leader of the Republican right, which has grown disgusted with Bush and his penchant for government by congenial consensus building.

The truth of the matter may be that there are no winners on either side. The budget ordeal, if anything, probably has made people more cynical toward government and increased public disgust with politicians in general and incumbents in particular.

A recent editorial in the Times of London spoke for Americans who are fed up with politicians who want the benefits but not the responsibilities of public office.

"The world's richest, most powerful and most important country is bankrupt," it said. "But the more important bankruptcy is political."