I was getting ready to speak the other day to a luncheon meeting of senior Democrats when the president of the group said she needed to tend to a little business first.
She told the 80 or so in attendance that she was tired of Republicans defining Democrats as "tax and spend." Those yellow cards in front of each of you, she said, are for you to write your definition of a Democrat.
She said the cards would be gathered after the meeting and that a committee would pore over them to arrive at a consensus definition of a Democrat for presentation at a subsequent gathering.
Republicans are laughing, surely.
They do not need cards to know who they are. They want to cut taxes and cut spending (unless maybe it is for an alternate second engine for a fighter plane to be built in their home states.)
The prevailing problem for Democrats is that they have needed two or three cards. They want to cut some taxes, too, but maybe raise others, and they want to cut some spending, too, but not in all categories and certainly not in an arbitrary or reckless way to the extent that innocent people would suffer and that an economy struggling to recover would be perilously contracted.
So it happened that, during the Q-and-A with the audience, a senior Democrat held up his yellow card and asked me if I had any idea what he ought to write.
I did not. My leanings are such that, of a dozen issues, I will lean more to the Democrats on, oh, eight to 11. But no few defining words can effectively summarize those leanings, much less pack such an engaging punch as "cut taxes and cut spending."
"Not Republicans" might be the best way to go, though I assume Democrats would prefer a positive element to their definition. For Democrats' sakes, one thing that must not be written on those cards is the bottom line of the budget President Obama sent to Congress on Tuesday. Theirs cannot be "the party of a $1.6 trillion deficit."
It is not sufficient compensation or mitigation to say that a projected deficit of that size contains real cuts amid strategic increases designed to keep a safety net intact and retool the economy with training, education and research. It will not be enough to assert that the deficit will start to come down in "out years," meaning an abstract period in the future for which we will assume, but only assume, best-case scenarios.
What a decisive segment of the American voting population wants right now, with a determination and vigor exceeding anything in the past, is an actual decrease in federal spending that sends a clear signal that the country is willing and able to right itself from its headlong dive into bankruptcy.
Obama knows that, which is why he hurried out the day after the budget was released to hold a news conference to explain, essentially, that this budget was simply a starting point for negotiations with Republicans.
Real long-term deficit reduction means finding a way to reduce the rate of spending growth in Social Security and Medicare. Over time, those programs must take in money at a higher rate and pay out at a lesser rate. And that is where the happy and easy Republican self-definition gets dicey.
Obama does not intend for Democrats to wander into that minefield unilaterally. So, at risk of backlash, he put a $1.6 trillion deficit on the table and invited Republicans to put their money where their mouths were, or, if willing, to come see him.
Democrats do not want to be the deficit party. Republicans do not want to be the enemies of old people. Reasonable minds ought to be able to sense a negotiation.
John Brummett is an award-winning columnist for the Arkansas News Bureau in Little Rock and author of "High Wire," a book about Bill Clinton's first year as president. His e-mail address is jbrummett@ arkansasnews.com.