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Will you sacrifice for America?

President Bush won't do it. Congress can't do it.

That leaves the people, people like you and me.

Will you step forward to help lead America out of the wilderness of political impasse? Will you accept your share of the sacrifices necessary to put the nation's budget in order? Will you willingly take a little less from the federal government and give a little more?

As this was written Friday, Congress and the president finally had reached a tentative agreement on a budget that will take the first small steps toward bringing the runaway deficit under control. But the agreement merely papers over the deep political split that caused the deficits. In the same week that last year's deficit was announced at $220.4-billion, the second largest in history ('86 was $221.2-billion), the agreement was a tiny step toward confronting the need to pay the full costs of our government. The political chasm that delayed even this step for so long remains, and apparently it won't close until voters

demand that their representatives in Washington put the nation's welfare ahead of every selfish motive.

Our country is divided and moving farther apart not only on the issue of fiscal responsibility but also on other principles of our national compact, such as freedom of speech and the proper relationship of church and state. We desperately need leadership for unity instead of appeals to selfishness.

For a decade America has been living on borrowed money. We reduced our taxes and everybody cheered. We spent lavishly on the military and thumped our chests proudly. We cut some domestic programs but continued the popular ones that benefit the majority. We abandoned the progressive income tax for an almost-flat rate, which vastly enriched the rich and hurt the lower and middle classes. Year after year after year, we borrowed and spent. We elected politicians who promised never to raise taxes even when they knew the borrowing could not go on much longer.

The hard awakening finally came earlier this year. After 10 years of huge federal deficits, mounting up to a $3.2-trillion debt, the reality became clear: This was a road to disaster. We must get off it.


Even on this question, we are split in many ways.

There are some Republicans who will support no tax increases, demanding instead that more domestic programs be cut drastically. They hope the weight of debt will cause a severe restriction in the domestic reach of the federal government. More Republicans work to protect the rich from higher taxes. Some Democrats seek to protect existing federal programs, especially Social Security and Medicare. Many Democrats want to restore the higher income tax rates on the wealthy that existed before Reagan. The budget finally agreed upon was a compromise that sought to bring together a majority in Congress and the president.

If the political system had been working when the impasse first developed, the president would have acknowledged the crisis in governing. Then, perhaps drawing from both political parties, he would have devised a specific plan to remedy it. Using the power of his office _ our only office with such power of leadership _ to rally the people, he would have persuaded the voters to support his plan to balance expenses with revenues.

I know this country well enough to say that Americans would have followed. They would have been eager to support a leader who asked them to respond to the nation's larger needs instead of individual interests.

Unfortunately, that kind of leadership has not come from the president.

Congress cannot lead. Its leaders lack the power to focus national attention. Its members, in the end, are a committee of 535 persons elected for the opposite purpose of representing the complex fabric of parochial interests that span the continent. That leaves it up to you and me, and millions of others like us.

Will you step forward now with the message that you think bringing the deficit under control is America's first priority? Will you say that you are willing to make the sacrifices necessary to balance the federal budget as soon as possible?

If you and others will speak out, you can become a new force in American politics, a force that says our nation is more important than its parts.

This situation reminds me of a statement former Florida Gov. LeRoy Collins made in 1960: "Great leadership never comes in the quiet and sweetness of early morning when all things seem good and clean with newness and promise. Rather it comes as the shadows lengthen on dark and stormy days _ days ruled by wrong, tormented by fear. For without wrong there is no urge to do right. Without sickness there is no will to search for cures. Without oppression there is no longing for liberation. Great leadership does not come to the people; it comes from the people."

I invite readers to send me their opinions on this subject at P.O. Box 1121, St. Petersburg, FL 33731. I will publish samples and send them along to President Bush.

Robert Pittman is editor of editorials and vice president of the St. Petersburg Times.